When I started looking for a topic for my blog this week I stumbled across a concept called “Christmas Creep”. Immediately I thought this must be a collective term for Santa Claus impersonators in shopping centres up and down the country, but I’m afraid the reality is far more sinister. 

Macmillan Dictionary refers to Christmas Creep as “the tendency for Christmas products, decorations and advertising to be displayed earlier each year”, and the concept will be familiar to anyone who has ever walked into a supermarket and thought “Christmas decorations/pumpkins/Easter eggs already!?”.

First used in the mid-eighties in the United States, ‘Christmas Creep’ was associated with a desire among retailers to drive Christmas related shopping before the traditional beginning of the holiday period on the day after Thanksgiving – now widely known on both sides of the Atlantic as ‘Black Friday’. But what does the data say about this phenomenon, and how is it related to wider socio-economic trends?

In 2014, a PhD candidate in statistics at Oxford University named Nathan Cunningham began to observe this creep using Google Trends, analysing the spikes in Christmas related search terms in Ireland as they occurred throughout the year and his findings are remarkable. Using cluster analysis and exploring search terms such as ‘cards’, ‘Christmas’, ‘Elf’, ‘Home Alone’, ‘Presents’, ‘Scrooge’ and ‘Toy Show’ (a famous annual episode of RTE’s Late Late Show in which the best toys for each years’ Christmas are exhibited), it was possible to see a shift in Christmas consciousness of almost three months (Chart below).

In 2007, the spike in Christmas related search terms began on November 11th, and while there was variance from year to year, by 2013 the spike came on August 25th, with a downward trend across the six-year period.

Using Ireland as an example, there is clear, statistical evidence for the ‘creep’ of Christmas, with the festive period entering the consciousness of consumers significantly earlier across a six-year period. This is reflected in the retail landscape surrounding Christmas, with ‘Black Friday’ – and its arrival in the UK mainstream in 2014 – changing the face of how many shop for Christmas. Research by Pricewaterhouse Cooper however, shows that while Christmas may have crept in earlier in recent years, it may not be that way forever. The firm anticipates that the 23rd of December 2016 – the final Friday before Christmas – will be the biggest shopping day this year, pointing out that one-day sales such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday appear to be in decline.

Rather than tapping into a previously untapped, inherent desire within consumers to celebrate and shop earlier and for longer, it seems that Black Friday perhaps plays into a trend identified by Trajectory founders Paul Flatters and Michael Willmott in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, Discretionary Thrift.

This trend identifies the way in which consumers find personal and practical satisfaction in making thrifty decisions, with Black Friday – and early Christmas sales – in general, allowing consumers to spread cost of Christmas over a longer period while taking advantage of reduced prices.

In this conceptualisation, Black Friday and Christmas Creep from a retail perspective, responds to the increasingly thrifty consumer psyche that is a direct result of a financial event such as the one we have recently lived through, rather than the realisation of a dormant desire that has always existed within consumers. As we get further and further from the financial crisis, it may be that consumers have grown slightly more comfortable, tired of the chaos of pre-Christmas sales and happy to simply pay a premium to shop when and where they feel most comfortable. With great economic uncertainty lying ahead however, I wouldn’t write off the return of the Black Friday and the Christmas Creep.