Don Cunningham: Christmas Retail in November

By Colin McEvoy on November 22, 2017

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on November 26, 2017. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

If you are 25 or older you remember when holiday retail began in December. Santa didn’t go up until the last turkey and pilgrim came down. White Christmas didn’t drift from the radio until it was cold enough to snow.

Last weekend, I turned on the car radio and heard Silver Bells followed by Jingle Bells. Yes, I still listen to radio. I don’t have Sirius XM. In fact, I still own a Blackberry, so the only time I feel cool anymore is when I’m with a guy with a flip phone, which, believe it or not, still exist, and are always owned by a guy, usually old, most often wearing a thick pair of dad jeans.

With “ring-a-ling, hear them ring” drifting into my ears, I thought I’d Rip Van Winkled and woke up in December. It would have been nice if I’d Pappy Van Winkled but that’s a bourbon I can neither find nor afford.

Like an umpire yelling “play ball,” it was a signal that the holiday shopping season had started.

I think Christmas songs in mid-November started somewhere in the late 1990s. My guess is that the Y2K craze had something to do with it. Note to readers: if you don’t understand the Y2K reference and are thinking it may be an oldies band, it’s okay to stop reading.

In that bygone era of the 20th Century, some wise retailers realized that people buy lots of stuff like crazy during the holiday season so it would make sense to get them buying lots of stuff earlier and longer. Low and behold, along came Black Friday, the holy day of retail, a seemingly dark and boding name for consumers but a day for retailers to go tell it on the mountain that they’d passed from the red to the black.

As a young mayor in Bethlehem during 1998, I had a front row seat to this disrupter of the last century. Tradition in the Christmas City was to turn on the holiday lights and begin the bus tours of the beautiful Dickensian downtown on the first Sunday of Advent, the start of the Christmas season in the Moravian and Christian calendar.

Trouble was Advent doesn’t start until four weeks before Christmas. The malls and shopping centers started holiday retail before Thanksgiving. Without the lights and decorations, Bethlehem’s shopping season was weeks behind. It was difficult enough for downtowns to compete with malls.

The merchants wisely proposed turning on the lights and transforming Bethlehem the day after Thanksgiving. There was some opposition from traditionalists and the Moravian community but retail is an American religion with many more congregants. Since then, Christmas in the Christmas City, like everywhere else in America, starts in November.

This, of course, was all back during an earlier testament when Amazon meant a river in South America, and the I-phone was a mere twinkle in Steve Jobs eye. Pre-Thanksgiving Jingle Bells was minor compared to what the future held.

Like an old-fashioned game of rock, paper, scissors, Black Friday trumped Advent but online retail trumped Black Friday. What’s the point of lining up outside a store at 2 a.m. while still digesting Thanksgiving turkey when better discounts are available earlier online and you can order while in your pajamas on the sofa before anyone buys the cranberry sauce? According to the National Retail Federation, 41 percent of consumer now begin holiday shopping before Nov. 1.

Technological advancement that creates greater ease, selection and affordability will always trump all in capitalism and, for that matter, wherever humans are assembled.

And, this isn’t just about holiday retail. Wal-Mart reported last month that online sales surged 60 percent during this year’s second quarter. The company has tripled the number of items on to a total of 70 million items, which includes groceries, pharmaceuticals and kitchen sinks.

In 2010, there were 35 million visits to shopping malls in America. By 2013, that number was down to 17 million visits, according to real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield. A majority of American’s now report that they prefer shopping online to visiting a store. The Millennial demographic reports spending an average of six hours per week shopping online.

You see where this is headed.

Having reached an age this year that has me halfway to 104-years-old, I am certainly playing on the back nine. It’s too complicated on my Blackberry for me to buy online but I do have a laptop and know how the process works. I still like rounding up all my necessary Christmas gifts on Dec. 23 or 24th while running through the mall or the downtown.

To me, there will be something lost when we stop leaving our homes to shop in charming environments with other humans.

The world churns on – and the Lehigh Valley, its economy and its workers, for now, have benefited on both ends of the retail equation. Our malls and shopping centers still survive and our downtowns are hanging on while the back economy of online retail is anchored here throwing off millions in tax base growth and creating a market-based minimum wage of about $15 per hour for nearly 30,000 jobs.

Yes, there are more trucks on the road. But, please spare me that lament while you are buying more and more online. There are no Christmas fairies, robots or drones yet to drop them on your porch. Those little brown packages of happiness come in trucks.

As that first pre-Thanksgiving rendition of Silver Bells recently drifted from my radio, however, I wondered if future generations will understand what these lyrics mean:

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas
Children laughing, people passing
Meeting smile after smile
And on every street corner you hear

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