The yearly race has begun. Can we shove the remaining picked-over Halloween candy down our gullets before the sugarplum visions dance in our heads? When it comes to advertising, the answer is no.
It has become an annual tradition to gripe about marketers pulling out the tinsel as soon as the jack o' lanterns are tossed away. Holt Renfrew, for example, has unveiled its "Northern Noel" window displays at its stores in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. In a partnership with Samsung that began the day after Halloween, it is encouraging people to visit on-site photo booths or submit their own photos via social media to put their own faces in the windows. In Britain, Marks and Spencer released its lavish Alice in Wonderland/Wizard of Oz-inspired holiday commercial featuring Helena Bonham Carter on Monday. Sobeys began airing its holiday commercial on Thursday. It stars celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who recently launched a marketing partnership with the grocery chain.
But there is good reason for the forward creep of Christmas: Consumers are asking for it.
According to a study from Deloitte, released last week, Canadian consumers begin their Christmas shopping earlier every year. Among just more than 2,000 people polled, 40.6 per cent told the researchers that they either have already begun their Christmas shopping, or plan to do so before the American "Black Friday" sales on Nov. 29.
While retailers used to save their big holiday sales for later in the shopping period, many have now begun trying to profit off the popularity of the U.S. Black Friday tradition; this year, Sears Canada held its first Black Friday sale tied to the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, in mid-October.
The awareness of Canadian Black Friday deals and the exposure to more of those deals online have helped to push Canadian consumers to early-bird digital research that is often the deciding factor in where people lay down their holiday dollars.
"Each year, we are noting they're starting earlier and earlier," said Kimberly MacDonald, a retail sector specialist with Deloitte.
Still, marketers have to exercise caution. Any holiday ads perceived as falling "too soon" in the year can lead to hiccups. For example, Toys "R" Us Canada will release its annual mega-flyer, the 64-page Toy Book, this Friday – a full week later compared with 2012.
"Last year it dropped on Nov. 1, the day after Halloween, and we got feedback from parents saying, 'Hey, we're a bit exhausted,'" said Liz MacDonald, vice-president of marketing and store planning for the retailer.
Toys "R" Us has not opted out of the early holiday marketing rush entirely, however. Its "Countdown to the Toybook" promotion is running on some Corus TV stations already, and on Nov. 1 it launched an eight-week partnership with Cineplex to run holiday ads before family movies, starring the company's 11-year-old "chief play officer."
To capture the online researchers, the company has put money into paid search results, social media programs, partnerships with "mommy bloggers" and other online advertising. And it has purposefully extended its return policies so that items purchased by keen shoppers in November can still be exchanged or refunded in January.
"If I can get you in my door and get you to buy early, I know I've got your sale," Ms. MacDonald said. "The longer we hesitate, the longer I have to keep working to get your sale."
Best Buy Canada has begun to shift its online and search engine advertising to reflect a holiday message, and launched holiday promotions in flyers and in-store on Nov. 1.
"We know consumers are doing research online and on their mobile phones. We want to have the assets to help them with that purchase," said James Pelletier, Best Buy Canada's director of brand marketing.
The retailer's biggest push will come around the U.S. Black Friday sales, however, when it launches TV ads in Canada, modified for this side of the border.
According to a recent survey from Google Inc., 37 per cent of Canadians see Black Friday and Cyber Monday (the online sales that fall after Black Friday) as key holiday shopping opportunities. That's up from 16 per cent a year earlier.
Even before the late-November U.S. Thanksgiving, shoppers are starting their research online and on mobile devices. Google's survey found that 91 per cent of shoppers are doing some research before purchase; when it conducted the survey in September, one in three participants had already started their holiday gift research, or even begun making purchases. Procrastinators are the minority. Just less than 9 per cent of those surveyed in the Deloitte study are still shopping after Dec. 16.
"They're researching longer and longer, because they're looking for value from the retailers," said Rafe Petkovic, Head of Retail at Google Canada. "… It's absolutely imperative that retailers consider how online and mobile play an absolutely leading role in driving customers into their stores."
If those stores are decked with boughs of holly earlier than seems reasonable, it is at least partly because marketers have learned that playing on holiday sentiment pays off. And that is not just because of people eager to cross off everyone on their shopping lists.
Many Starbucks Corp. stores in Canada switched decor to a red holiday theme and put Peppermint Mocha lattes on menus on Nov. 2. But its holiday campaign actually began before Halloween with a promotion that allowed customers a chance to preorder one of its distinctive red paper cups, the designs for which are updated every year.
Even though it was early – Oct. 16 to 19 – with a small outreach through PR and social media, and very little advertising, it attracted 70,000 unique visitors to the website. The 250 cups a day were often snapped up in three minutes or less. The traffic was so heavy, the company had to increase its server capacity.
"Over the years, we've started to understand how important [the season] is to people, and we use that customer mindset," said Richard Burjaw, vice-president of marketing at Starbucks Canada.
The company tries not to overdo it, waiting until later in the season to play Christmas carols or to run holiday ads. But for all the seasonal complaints about the lengthy festive runup, there is little downside for marketers.
"I don't think we ever fail to be pleasantly surprised at how popular our seasonal events are," Mr. Burjaw said, "and the holiday red cup is an example of that."