'Christmas creep' annoys, but sadly, it seems to work

Kmart's holiday decorations were on sale by early October.
Kmart's holiday decorations were on sale by early October.Sonny Hedgecock / AP / Today

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By Allison Linn

Christmas decorations hit some store shelves while many people were still wearing shorts, and hot holiday toy lists came out just as many families were crossing off the final items from their back-to-school shopping lists.

Now there’s news that Black Friday, that national frenzy of holiday shopping, is going to be starting as early as Thanksgiving evening, with big store chains like Wal-Mart and Toys 'R' Us opening their doors even as many families are still finishing their pie and coffee.

The widening of the holiday shopping season, sometimes referred to as “Christmas creep,” may leave some people grumbling, but don’t expect it to go away anytime soon.

“Until there are really people outside stores picketing I don’t think the trend will abate, and I don’t think there’s a whole lot of downside for the retailers,” said Ted Marzilli, global managing director of BrandIndex, which tracks the public perception of brands.

Retailers are so desperate for your holiday shopping dollars after years of economic woes that they’ll try just about anything to get a bigger chunk of your limited budget, Marzilli and other analysts say. Offering deals earlier and earlier just may give some of those retailers a leg up on the competition.

“Is it really working? Too soon to tell. Can it work? The answer is clearly yes,” said Marshal Cohen, retail analyst with NPD Group.

Many shoppers already are on the lookout for deals.

A survey done in late October by YouGov BrandIndex found that nearly one-third of shoppers had already started shopping for holiday gifts. Nearly half expected to start before Thanksgiving, according to the survey, to be released this week.

That’s similar to results BrandIndex got in 2008, the last time the firm asked the question, Marzilli said.

Retailers aren’t necessarily going to squeeze much more money out of consumers by trying to get them to buy holiday gifts along with Halloween candy. Amid a weak economy and a high unemployment rate, the National Retail Federation is expecting holiday sales to increase a modest 2.8 percent this year over year-ago levels.

Retailers are hoping an early jump on promotions will allow them to steal some business from competitors who aren’t yet offering similar deals or at least snag some of their holiday shopping dollars earlier in the season, experts say.

“If the retailer can get some people thinking about Christmas sooner than they otherwise would … then (they’ve) locked up the $10 or $20 or $50 or $100 that the consumer was going to spend,” Marzilli said.

That’s one reason Black Friday has gradually expanded, with holiday-themed deals starting days or even weeks before the day after Thanksgiving.

Call all diehard Black Friday shoppers!

C. Britt Beemer, head of the consumer research firm America’s Research Group, said early Black Friday-type promotions also may be aimed at people who want a good deal but don’t want to endure the ever-earlier wake-up call for Black Friday (so named because retailers can get into the black with strong sales).

Shoppers who go to Walmart for one of its pre-holiday Super Saturday deals may pay slightly more for a flat-screen TV, Beemer said, “but they didn’t have to get up at 3 a.m.”

Still, Beemer is predicting that this year’s Black Friday will be bigger than ever.

To some Americans, getting up at dawn on Friday to go shopping is bad enough, but going shopping on Thanksgiving night is inexcusable. The activist group change.org has even started a petition to try to force retailer Target to change its plans to open at midnight on Thanksgiving rather than a few hours later early Friday.

A Target spokeswoman told msnbc.com the company still plans to open at midnight.

Cohen said the advent of social media could get the backlash effort some attention, but he doesn’t expect complaints about Christmas creep to have much effect on retailers’ plans.

“Right now we’re more concerned about getting the (European) debt crisis resolved and getting a jobs bill,” he said. “There’s so much more for people to be worried about than opening a store.”