Every year, retailers face up to this busiest of shopping times with the usual mix of anticipation and anxiety. However, I get the impression that this year may not bring with it the usual roller coaster of emotions.
The simple explanation for this is that expectations this year must be lower than in any previous year. Sure, the papers are still full of commentary on whether this Christmas will be a retailing washout or the one that provides salvation for struggling high-street retailers. Somehow, though, I get the feeling that the retailers themselves will already know the truth. This year, very few retailers, if any, will have allowed themselves to be carried away by a wave of optimism that Christmas will turn their fortunes around.
That is what happened last year, though. After a couple of months of fading consumer confidence, the hope was that Christmas would turn it all around. It did not. Instead, retailers were left with excessive stock levels and panicked into snap sales and discount days, giving away valuable margin on every sale they made.
Retailers won't be thinking along those lines again this year. The monthly British Retail Consortium-KPMG Retail Sales Monitor shows that eight of the first 11 months of 2005 recorded negative like-for-like sales. That is not an encouraging environment in which to have to do business, but at least it has had the unexpected bonus of releasing retailers from the burden of festive expectation.
Accordingly, many have not built up unrealistic stock levels in anticipation of a rush which will not come. Fewer retailers have been forced into early sale announcements this year.
There are, of course, interesting aspects that emerge from every Christmas shopping period. This time, the internet is again to the fore. Many commentators firmly believe that this year will see a huge leap in terms of online retail performance.
However, it is important to bear in mind that for many online retailers, the festive trading period ends in mid-December. After that - on the whole - online retailers cannot guarantee delivery fulfilment, so once we get down to the last fortnight before Christmas, it is normally a straight fight between bricks-and-mortar retailers for those final purchases.
If consumers were in the habit of getting all their Christmas shopping done by mid-December, then online retailers would have a bigger part to play. However, our regular surveys of Christmas shopping activity through November and December reveal that activity levels slowly build up to a peak that comes well after mid-December.
By mid-November, one-third of the expected Christmas spend had already gone through retailers' tills. By early December, that amount had crept up to only 45%. Add to that the fact that 51% of respondents were reckoning on finishing their shopping as late as the week before Christmas and that adds up to an awful lot of spending for which many online players simply cannot compete.
That is not to say that there won't be online success stories. We found that 38% of shoppers planned to make at least some gift purchases online.
That's an impressive number - although some of that can also be attributed to the bricks-and-mortar retailers whose own online offerings continue to improve at a rapid rate.
In overall trading terms, this could be one of the most unexciting and unexceptional Christmases for some time. And after the way they got their fingers burned last year, many retailers will be delighted with that.
- Helen Dickinson is head of retail at KPMG
30 SECONDS ON ... CHRISTMAS
- Tesco launched a seasonal 'musical sandwich' earlier this month using the same technology used in musical greetings cards. When the turkey, cranberry and stuffing sandwich's packaging is opened, it plays a medley of Christmas tunes.
- If the concept is a success, the retailer is considering linking up with record companies to use the packaging to promote new artists and releases.
- Council officials in Rotterdam, Holland, have come up with a seasonal way to stop gangs of youths congregating at one underground station: a barrel organ playing children's carols at high volume.
- A contender for the title of the world's most expensive Christmas card was sold at auction on 3 December for almost £8500. The hand-coloured card is one of an estimated 10 surviving examples of the first commercially produced Christmas cards. The batch of 1000 cards were printed in London in 1843 by Henry Cole, and were originally sold for 1s each.