Commercial holiday decorations show up earlier and earlier every year, and so too does speculation about what the coming shopping season will bring for retailers.
Halloween is not yet upon us, but chilling stories have already appeared. September sales figures were disappointing, with big chains such as Target and JC Penney reporting declines. But at the same time, personal income grew 0.4% in August, a signal that consumers might actually have the resources to spend liberally on holiday accoutrements. But there is no real understanding of whether or not they'll actually do so.
Conflicting indicators like these tend to perpetuate apprehension, particularly when headlines like "That screeching sound in stores is shoppers' brakes" appear in The Wall Street Journal. The paper and others in the business media are reporting that nerves are shattered in the retail world, with most expecting the season to be the worst in years. With many fearful messages like these doing the rounds, PR has a key role to play.
While people typically associate the holidays with an onslaught of seasonal advertising, PR is critical in a number of areas, particularly as companies and their stakeholders gear up for the period. Retail executives will be negotiating a difficult media environment over the next three months, as every indicator of the season's health will continue to be scrutinized closely. PR pros are charged with helping find the right tone to satisfy the realistic concern of investors, while not exacerbating any negative spiral that might deter consumers. Employees on the retail floor, who interact daily with customers and ultimately influence their decisions of whether or not to return, require sound internal communications to convey a company's commitment to service and quality. At the same time, companies need to find ways to motivate and convey appreciation and support for employees who keep things running during the year's busiest shopping period.
Some large retail chains, recognizing that they are perceived as uninvolved in local communities, are finding meaningful ways to link with their neighborhoods. Amid media speculation that shoppers may find empty shelves when seeking out this year's hot item because nervous stores may be reluctant to place large orders, there is an opportunity to convince the public that meeting customer needs is the top priority. Independent retailers and those not publicly traded are not exempt from these issues. Every company is challenged to differentiate itself, to convey the qualities that will make it the go-to place for holiday shopping.
It is not too late to start implementing programs to ramp up for the holidays, but soon it will be. While few things are more annoying than seeing a Christmas tree put up before Thanksgiving (or a holiday season-themed editorial in October), a missed PR opportunity is more frustrating and costly. However, it is also more preventable.
? Julia Hood