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Holiday products 'creep' as retailers race to vie with online sales

| Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Yup Zhang of Kent, OH, shops in J.C. Penny's Christmas section at Ross Park Mall on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Yup Zhang of Kent, OH, shops in J.C. Penny's Christmas section at Ross Park Mall on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.
J.C. Penney's Christmas section at Ross Park Mall on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
J.C. Penney's Christmas section at Ross Park Mall on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.
Some of the merchandise at JCPenny's Christmas section at Ross Park Mall on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Some of the merchandise at JCPenny's Christmas section at Ross Park Mall on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.
Some of the merchandise at J.C. Penney's Christmas section at Ross Park Mall on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Some of the merchandise at J.C. Penney's Christmas section at Ross Park Mall on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.
Ryanne Benninger, 9, of Shaler looks at some of the items for sale at JCPenny's Christmas section at Ross Park Mall on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Ryanne Benninger, 9, of Shaler looks at some of the items for sale at JCPenny's Christmas section at Ross Park Mall on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.
Yup Zhang of Kent, OH, shops in J.C. Penney's Christmas section at Ross Park Mall on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. .
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Yup Zhang of Kent, OH, shops in J.C. Penney's Christmas section at Ross Park Mall on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. .

Inside Glassworks on Walnut Street in Shadyside, dishes, ornaments, napkins, figurines and other items with a Christmas theme seem out of place on a warm October day.

The shop, which specializes in tabletop items and gifts, is displaying its Christmas items earlier than usual because manufacturers have been moving up their schedules for holiday merchandising in the past two years, said Ilene Levy, owner of the store that has been a fixture in Shadyside since 1979.

“I usually get (Christmas merchandise) in right after Halloween,” Levy said, adding that her customers have responded well to the earlier start to the store's Christmas shopping season.

Glassworks is not alone.

Most retailers wait until Nov. 1 to deck the halls and beckon holiday shoppers, said Kathy Grannis Allen, spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Retail Federation, but more are starting earlier — some as early as summer — in a trend called “Christmas creep.”

“It seems a little desperate to me. And it's a little sad. It doesn't make me want to buy anything,” said Roseanne Colleran, 56, of Lawrenceville.

Christmas before Halloween is a turnoff, said Highland Park resident Anne Buzzelli, 40. “I believe I've become a little jaded by the materialism in general.”

What customers want

While some consumers may decry what they deem the over-commercialization of Christmas when reindeer, Santa, snowmen, red and green designs and other telltale Christmas items are placed in store window displays and on shelves, retailers say they are giving customers what they want.

According to a National Retail Federation survey released this week, about 40 percent of shoppers say they begin their holiday shopping before Halloween.

Many are starting even earlier, according to a CreditCards.com survey of 1,004 American adults, which found that 14 percent of consumers — or about 32 million adults based on census estimates — started holiday shopping in September.

Consumers shop earlier to help spread out budgets and avoid the shopping crowds in November and December, according to the National Retail Federation survey.

Stores are moving up their holiday sales season because of growing competition from Internet retailers, said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director at New York-based retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group. The brick-and-mortar stores are looking to attract customers and generate more business by extending the selling season with an early start.

The National Retail Federation's survey found that 46.1 percent of holiday shopping will take place online this year, an increase from 44.4 percent last year.

“As consumers are getting more cautious, retailers are getting more desperate because they've got higher occupancy costs, higher taxes, higher health care costs and higher compensation costs,” said Flickinger, who said retailers are advancing sales periods for other holidays, such as Halloween and Thanksgiving.

The factors behind Christmas creep are similar to those behind “Black Friday creep,” a term that refers to more stores being open and offering discounts on Thanksgiving, the day before what has traditionally been the biggest shopping day of the year.

In 2014, however, most holiday spending took place on the last Saturday before Christmas, according to ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based retail research firm.

‘Keep it all the year'

Given the challenging retail landscape, many say it's no wonder that Kmart started running Christmas layaway commercials shortly after Labor Day, and Wal-Mart started its holiday layaway Aug. 28, two weeks earlier than usual. Wal-Mart tied its layaway start to the start of its first Toy Week, which coincided with the Sept. 4 release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” toys and Wal-Mart's list of what it expects to be the top-selling toys for the holiday season.

This week, Christmas-themed decorations and merchandise were in several local stores, including Pottery Barn, J.C. Penney, Sears, Macy's, Pier 1 Imports and Target. But representatives for most of those stores said their Christmas items were not out any earlier than they were last year.

In a J.C. Penney store at Ross Park Mall, this year's Christmas Shop section of ornaments, candles, nutcrackers and other decorations is larger and includes more items, especially localized favorites requested by customers, compared to last year's section, said Diane DiGregory, the store's general manager.

“Anything sports-related has been very big around here,” she said.

Outside of the Christmas Shop, the store has expanded its selection of Christmas-themed merchandise, such as quilts, pajamas, boxed jewelry and winter outwear and accessories.

“We've really increased our assortment based on customer feedback and sales,” said DiGregory, who said the store started putting Christmas items out at the beginning of October.

At Ross Park Mall's Altar'd State, a Christian-based women's clothing retailer, a Christmas tree and lights were featured with winter clothing in a window display. A small sign in the display bore a quote from Charles Dickens' “A Christmas Carol”: “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

Christmas decorations were put in Altar'd State's 64 stores Sunday, a week earlier than they were last year, but Christmas merchandise will not be available for purchase until Monday, which is not a change from last year, said Jamey Clemens, spokeswoman for the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company.

The company's decisions to start decorating earlier and increase its amount of Christmas merchandise were inspired by its staff seeing what other retailers worldwide were offering during the holiday season last year, Clemens said.

“We fell in love with the nostalgic memories we all carry for this time of the year and wanted to bring this feeling to our guests. We were so inspired by this experience that we had our next Christmas planned early in 2015,” she said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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