Just as the holiday season is kicking into overdrive, new consumer research shows that when stores pile on too much Christmas, shoppers become stressed out, feel bad and avoid them. Holly-jolly associates, relentless music, and dazzling decorations make people less willing to purchase, says Nancy Puccinelli, associate fellow at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Marketing Daily asks her to explain that backlash and what stores can do to prevent it.
Q: So why do stores tend to go overboard?
A: Retailers invest considerable sums in the hope of making consumers feel good in their stores, and therefore inclined to spend more. But, actually, it is shortsighted to generalize about consumers and how they might behave when surrounded by enforced holiday cheer. We know from studies of consumer behavior that moderation in festive decor leads consumers to spend more and to like the retailer more.
Q: Besides toning it down, what can stores do?
A: Offer subtle suggestions to take action. In my research, I briefly exposed consumers to words like “move,” “go,” and “action,” which made positive stimuli less aversive. The reasoning is that the words serve as a subtle motivation to exert cognitive effort, which in turn gives them the energy to process a positive stimulus and feel better. Slogans such as “Engage in the Holidays” or “Move to the Music of the Holidays” might be especially effective. Surprisingly, this is likely to make consumers battle their inner Scrooge, enjoy the retail experience and help them get that Christmas shopping done.
Q: What stores do well at delivering that moderation?
A: Macy’s is famous for its Santalands, which are often on upper floors, giving shoppers the ability to opt out. Macy’s then uses a lighter touch elsewhere in the store. A similarly effective strategy is that of UK retailer Marks and Spencer. The website has a Christmas tab, rather than making the landing page all about the holidays. As a result, consumers coming to the website can choose how much holiday cheer they want.
Q: What can you tell us about other sensory reactions?
A: Music has a profound effect. Classical melodies, such as Tchaikovsky’s “[The] Nutcracker,” celebrate the holiday without hitting consumers over the head with the joy they should be experiencing. Dimmer blue tones would be relaxing for consumers. Nostalgic smells might help consumers focus on the holidays as a family time and detract from the stress of gift-giving. Perhaps the smell of pine or gingerbread would take consumers back to a time when they did not have the pressures of holiday shopping. While scents do not typically affect mood, they have a strong effect on memory.
Q: Is there anything you discovered about timing? Nordstrom, for example, won't put up any holiday decor until the day after Thanksgiving.
A: The earlier the decorations go up, the sooner the stress begins and the greater it will be once the holidays arrive. As a result, shoppers will find the festive Christmas decorations that much more aversive. There is some evidence that early in the morning, consumers might be more open to new things, which might make them somewhat less turned off by festive décor. But most of the time, over-the-top Christmas decorations are just off-putting.
Q: The stereotype is that women get more stressed over holiday shopping. True?
A: We don’t find any gender differences. But other researchers suggest that women spend more time and process advertising and promotions in more depth, which may contribute disproportionately to their stress.