Thoughts on Christmas Past

As you know by now, the holiday sales reports for 2007 were less than merry. Lots of reasons for this have been bandied about, from economic uncertainty and weather to high gas prices and cash-strapped consumers cutting back on extras.

These are indeed all valid contributors that are out of the hands and control of many companies. But as both a veteran merchandising professional and a real-life consumer, I have noted additional reasons for the holiday sales shortfall. And these are within the scope and control of retailers.

Here are my observations from 2007. I hope this compilation prompts a conversation within your organization about your own customers’ holiday experiences.


Looking at the customer experience, let’s start with the nice. Many retailers clearly understood the need for rolling out the red carpet for customers to make them feel special and appreciated. These merchants clearly understand the following four concepts.


    Women’s apparel merchant Boston Proper sent out an e-mail “Christmas greeting” from its CEO, Michael Tiernan, personally thanking customers for their loyalty and rewarding them with free shipping upgrades. Ann Taylor, another women’s apparel marketer, sent e-mails inviting its customers’ “friends and family” to additional special insider savings. Just two examples of companies personalizing the shopping experience in meaningful ways. How human was your brand this shopping season?


    Companies that went the extra mile to help customers choose just the right gift won even more loyalty. knows all athletes are not created equal. The sporting goods merchant created a helpful online holiday gift center with items tagged for the trailblazer, the gym buff, the team player, the trendsetter, etc. General merchant Amazon’s Gift Central was created to help harried customers plan and track their gifts. These companies became helpful and efficient personal shoppers.

    Other merchants such as Coldwater Creek, Frontgate, Chefs Catalog, and The Container Store compiled edited selections of their vast assortments into mini gift books to help the overwhelmed and harried shopper.

    Anthropologie even titled one of its smaller catalogs “Giving” and dedicated half of the pages to large, full page shots of individual gifts. These eye-catching techniques help books stand out from the overly full December mailboxes.

    Food gifts mailer Wolferman’s counts on its customers making a tradition out of sending “the gift of breakfast” each holiday season. But who can remember from year to year what English muffins you sent to whom? Wolferman’s made repeat gift-giving simple and convenient by sending their customers a pre-filled-out holiday gift reminder list.

    And, of course, one of the other stressful parts of gift giving is the wrapping. Red Envelope and Levenger have long mastered the fine art of presentation, but did you know that Apple has as well? Simple, clean and classy (see example, right), the Apple presentation matches its brand experience to a tee.

    How did your brand reduce gift-giving stress for your customers this season?


    Yes, the Web long ago made 24/7 shopping a norm. But believe it or not, some customers still like the thrill of the hunt…in person…in a store. Macy’s, Toys ‘R’ Us, and Apple are a few stores that pulled all-nighters to please customers and meet their night owl shopping schedules. They realized that the customer is indeed in charge — at all hours and in all places! How did you put your customers in charge?


    Aggressive promotions, starting with L.L. Bean’s early-on free shipping and handling offer, set the tone of the season. L.L. Bean also offered a free $10 gift card on purchases of $50 later in the season. Coldwater Creek did something similar — $30 off a $100 purchase.

Other mailers heavily promoted their vast selection of value-priced gifts. For example, a Signals catalog boasted 330+ gifts under $300, while Land’s End offered 50 gifts under $30.

All in all, customers demanded bargains, the more the better. How creative were your promotions? Were they what your customers wanted?

Overall, how did your brand treat customers this season? Were you naughty by not putting the customer in charge, aggravating her with out-of-stocks, wasting her time with poor and rude service, inconveniencing her by not providing her with a full-service gift experience, and so on? Or were you nice by simply meeting her expectations vs. exceeding them? Perhaps this season would have been a bit merrier if companies had set their sights higher than nice.


One key reason this season lacked sales punch was product ennui. Same old, same old. Display after display of look-alike cashmere sweaters. Toys that made you wonder about potential recalls. Gadgets that soon disappointed. Similar products that could be found in many catalogs. Ho-hum vs. Ho, ho, ho!

Ask any of your friends or relatives what their favorite gifts were and I bet you’ll be hard pressed to hear of many innovative gift-giving experiences. Most people received gift cards — the No. 1 category (No. 2 was practical electronics).

What happened to creative merchandising and product development? How are customers supposed to feel the thrill of the hunt (one of Anthropologie’s and Costco’s strengths) when there are so few “must have” prizes?

A friend recently commented on how Christmas mornings have changed. Instead of the surprise element (albeit sometimes good, sometimes not so good!) of unwrapping specially chosen gifts for one another around the tree and ooohhhing and aaahhhing, the family passes out gift cards like shuffling playing cards: Old Navy for the pre-teen, Chico’s for mom, Home Depot for dad, Best Buy for the geek, Barnes & Noble for the bookworm, and so on.

Then they all wait for the bargains to begin on Dec. 26. Hmmm. Not exactly the nostalgic Norman Rockwell experience.

Granted, gift cards are here to stay. They meet today’s consumers’ needs: convenience, convenience, and convenience. You don’t even have to go to the actual store. You can typically order them online or by phone or pick them up at your grocery store with your weekly milk and bread. For instance, Safeway had more than 200 card “partners.”

The good news is that this is one category that has not fallen to product listlessness. I applaud the creativity in gift card presentation — from personalization, customization, packaging, on-brand look, and feels, to the variety of messaging and designs.

High-end outdoor apparel marketer Gorsuch’s gift cards looks like a painting of two skiers schussing downhill (see example below). Target also has several enticing gift-card design options. And yet, there are more ways for multichannelers to leverage the potential of gift cards. Brainstorm ways your brand can make more merriment out of gift cards.


This is not the first Christmas that I have commissioned my artistic friend to make many of my gifts for the season. And I am not alone.

As the “sea of sameness” continues throughout retail-land, the idea of “handmade” and artisan gifts continues to surge. The Artful Home understands this and even has a section of truly exquisite “one of a kind” gifts both online and in its catalog.

Femail Creations was founded to give female artists a voice and outlet for their creations., an online marketplace for buying and selling handmade goods, aims to “enable people to make a living making things, and to reconnect makers with buyers…”

This is where catalogers used to shine. Their merchandise was unique, extraordinary. Customers are craving this. How might your brand fill this need?

ONTO ’08

In Seth Godin’s new book about old and new marketing, Meatball Sundaes, he reminds us that, “Customers are in charge. They’re bored. They’re narcissistic. And they certainly don’t have the patience for your meetings and strategy decks.”

And so, as a consumer and as a merchant, I implore you to make magic out of your learning lessons of 2007. Many companies don’t. As historian and author Barbara Tuchman said, “Learning from experience is a faculty almost never practiced.”

Christmas 2008 is right around the corner. Get back to the workshop and make Santa proud!

Andrea Syverson is president of IER Partners, a branding and merchandising consultancy in Black Forest, CO.

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