This Holiday Season, Retailers Better Be
Wary Of The Surly Shopper
Consumers stressed by economy will be
less tolerant of lousy service and pricy items
November 06, 2008
Retailers are turning on the charm in an effort to coax
credit cards from the wallets of financially stressed
customers this holiday season.
"Retailers are looking at the market today the same way
their customers are," says Peter Woolford,
vice-president of policy development and research for
Retail Council of Canada. "They live in the same world
their customers do, so just as customers are standing
nervously on the edge of all this uncertainty and trying
to make sense of it, so are retailers."
Some stores have already launched campaigns intended to
show consumers they understand this year is different.
Wal-Mart Canada says it dropped the prices on its
top-selling toys earlier this year than ever before,
while Shoppers Drug Mart recently offered shoppers $10
or $20 restaurant "food cards" with purchase. On select
weekends, Sears Canada has started offering
interest-free payment reprieves until 2011 for
big-ticket purchases, while some U.S. retailers are
bringing back the layaway plan.
Future Shop launched its holiday promotions a week early
this year and its online Gift-o-meter suggests gizmos
for a range of budgets and degrees of tech-comfort.
"The consumer last year was confident, was ready to
spend. It was about, 'Let's have a little fun,'"
Woolford says. This year, the message of choice appears
to be "'We make your dollar go farther here," he says.
Kevin Groh, director of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart
Canada, says that since stock markets began lurching
this fall, its stores have seen new groups of consumers
join the usual bargain-hunting crowd.
"We're seeing (big sales of) household basics like paper
towels on the one end, but we're also having great
success with our flat-screen TVs," he says. "There's no
question, economic woes lead people to our doors."
Ernst & Young predicted this week that while Canadian
retailers will see a steady flow of customers through
their doors, they'll be picking up "more modest" gifts
than in flusher days, perhaps opting for DVD players or
GPS systems instead of LCD TVs or high-end cellphones.
But in a year where many will be pushed to spend more
than is comfortable, price is only part of the equation,
says Rob Daniel, managing director of retail research
firm Maritz Research Canada.
U.S. consumer satisfaction ratings are already taking a
hit because shoppers stressed about their spending are
much less tolerant of mediocre service, he says, so
retailers had better make sure lines are short and staff
are on their game or they'll suffer the wrath of surly
"You can take customers for granted during good times,"
"In bad times, you really want to be kissing up to your
customers to make them feel appreciated, and the only
people who can do that are the people on the ground
inside your stores."
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is calling
for a different sort of acknowledgment of economic
realities with a new appeal urging the largest toy
manufacturers to declare a moratorium on advertising to
children this holiday season. Instead, the group is
encouraging toy makers to advertise their products
during adult programs and pitch their benefits to
"It's cruel for companies to dangle irresistible ads for
toys and electronics in front of children when parents
everywhere are worried about their financial future and
worried about paying for necessities this holiday
season," says Susan Linn, director of the organization.
"This barrage of holiday marketing is going to create
unrealistic expectations in children who are too young
to understand the economic crisis."
As of yesterday afternoon, messages of protest to 24
CEOs of companies such as Mattel, Leap Frog and Hasbro
had been sent by 1,440 people, including many Canadians
like Kitchener, Ont., parent Jen McTavish.
Her family, which includes a one-year-old and
4-year-old, is always very mindful of their consumption,
she says, but she signed on to the new campaign because
it reflects her long-held belief that marketing to
children is not "fair game" - especially this year.
"For every family, the economic crisis adds a lot more
stress," the 40-year-old teacher says.
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