ANALYSIS: Holiday shopping season ushered in by uncertainty

PR plans for the holiday shopping season are moving apace, even as doubts linger about just how much consumers will spend this year.

PR plans for the holiday shopping season are moving apace, even as doubts linger about just how much consumers will spend this year.

Troubled times may cast shadows across Christmas trees and Menorahs this holiday season. Stock losses may crimp checkbooks. Job stability worries may curb spending. War looms in Iraq. And with business pages reporting conflicting consumer-spending forecasts almost daily, uncertainty may be the only certainty about holiday shopping. Yet in some ways, this holiday season marks a return to consumer PR as usual. "There were holiday gift guides out there [last year], but September 11 was major news, and all the repercussions after that," says Bob Friedland, consumer PR manager for FAO Inc., parent of FAO Schwarz and Zany Brainy. "We felt kind of inappropriate calling people." During the 2001 holidays, commercialism seemed more crass than usual so soon after the terrorist attacks, and those who did mount consumer PR campaigns often found their stories squeezed off the page by anthrax and the shoe bomber. Tying releases too closely to any particular date can still be risky, especially with security agencies on alert after Osama bin Laden's most recent communication. "I'm very nervous about campaigns that are linked to a single news cycle," says Steve Bryant, chief creative officer of Publicis Dialog. "Look at what's going on with the news media. They're hurting from reduced ad revenue, and their salvation, if you will, is in the big news event," he says. "When that happens, they're all over it, which means they've turned their backs on the softer stories that might interest consumers." Yet after last year's season of restraint, consumer PR practitioners came out pitching, in some cases even harder because of greater competition for the news hole. Many are falling back on traditional holiday messages that exude warmth and joy, while stressing value and quality in varying degrees relative to their brands' price points and demographic targets. "We've been very aggressive this year," says Friedland, whose company sent its first holiday-themed, camera-ready articles to small papers. And as is the case with all serious holiday PR pushes, FAO Schwarz began months in advance. Back in July, the toy chain organized a summer sneak peak and an SMT. The first project targeted holiday-gift-guide editors, who can be hard to reach given that holiday items often aren't available for display early enough to meet their long-lead deadlines. So as soon as items were photographed for the Christmas catalogue, Friedland sent them to the Fifth Avenue store, which converted a room into a holiday showcase. More than a dozen magazine editors attended, and the effort netted five product features in InStyle magazine alone, Friedland says. FAO's "Sizzlin' Summer Toys" SMT marked the first such effort under the store's own brand, Friedland adds. The PR staff recruited entertainment and demonstration director Chuck "The Toy Boy" Santoro as a spokesman. Four vendors whose toys were featured in the SMT footed the bill. "That was a test run," Friedland says. "We didn't think it would be effective in the holiday season without knowing if it would work." The successful experiment paved the way for three holiday-period SMTs, including a November 13 broadcast for Zany Brainy. Black Friday opportunities FAO Schwarz also noticed that fewer reporters than usual showed up last year to report on shopping the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally a slow news day when accountants record big numbers in black ink. So this year, Friedland sent out postcards to reporters in seven flagship markets, asking, "Are you covering Black Friday?" and offering opportunities to learn about the hottest toys. Black Friday can be a great PR opportunity for retailers willing to give TV reporters the time and space to shoot turkey-filled shoppers scrambling for bargains. Wal-Mart tries to accommodate journalists, but must balance the need for publicity with operational concerns. "The fine line is not to distract the stores from what they do, and that's selling," says Tom Williams, Wal-Mart's senior manager for US media relations. "We try to schedule in close coordination with stores, and always defer to the stores if they can't do it," Williams says. Wal-Mart isn't rolling out any new marketing strategies this year, but continues to place an emphasis on customer service and product availability, especially to impress first-time shoppers. "We are seeing people shop with us who have never shopped with us before," Williams says. "That tells us people are value shopping. We want people to stay with us even when the economy goes North again." The luxury-cars-in-discount-store-parking-lot phenomena illustrates retail analyst Jerry Thomas' point about what makes this recession unique: "The people who are being laid off are higher-income people," says Thomas, president and CEO of Decision Analyst. The loss of a $100,000 job carries the same economic impact of three to five factory workers being laid off, he explains. "I think our unemployment situation is more negative than the numbers suggest," he says, adding that a spike in home and car purchases fueled by low interest rates also may decrease available cash for holiday purchases. The world's uncertainty may drive consumers to seek refuge in holiday warmth this year, therefore increasing the importance of traditional home-and-hearth marketing messages. "The holidays can be a respite for those woes, and it doesn't take big spending to pull out the decorations and assemble some thoughtful gifts," Bryant says. Consumers also feel the urge to give during the holidays, and last year's tragedy magnified that impulse, marketers agree. In 2001 and 2002, the Cone Holiday Trend Tracker showed that 58% of shoppers planned to buy a product for which a portion of the price is donated to a cause. And 53% of those surveyed this year said they would buy from retailers that support causes. Westcor Shopping Centers launched a new cause-marketing strategy this year, which is also used by Indianapolis-based Simon Malls. "Last year, community giving was obviously a big message because of the aftermath of September 11, and from our standpoint, community giving still is," says Traci Weber, associate director of CKPR, a Cramer-Krasselt subsidiary that handles PR for the chain. Westcor's 10 malls in Arizona and Colorado stayed open late the Sunday before Thanksgiving for shoppers who bought $5 "Friends & Family Night" tickets. Retailers offered special discounts, and ticket proceeds went to a women's charity. Partnering with charities that appeal to women can be wise, since women are more likely to give during the holidays, according to the Cone survey (64% plan to buy products for which part of the price goes to causes). Apprehension abounds Despite consumers' desire to wrap themselves in holiday comfort, apprehension remains in the retail industry and consumer PR sector. "I think that people are scared for their safety economically, physically, and emotionally. And whenever you operate out of fear, there is a tendency to either do nothing or do something that you feel will protect you in the present situation, which usually is not spending money," says Robbie Vorhaus, president and CEO of New York's Vorhaus & Company. Some noted a decline in holiday PR spending when campaign budgets were being set six to nine months ago. FAO, in fact, hasn't used outside PR during the last two holiday seasons. "Retainer clients may have committed to their budgets [for next year] with the caveat of saying, 'But let's see where we are after Q1,'" Vorhaus says. "We say, 'Christmas always comes," notes Wal-Mart's Williams. But this year, a small increase in holiday spending may be a great gift to the economy. The rate at which merchandise moves off shelves, and thus how much money is available for consumer PR next year, may vary by category, and price cannot be ignored this year, opines Bryant. "I think it will be high-stakes, depending on what sector you're in and how much you expect people to spend out of their thin wallets."

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