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16 December 2002updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

How to shop without the hassle

James Crabtree and William Davies find online retailers transformi

By James Crabtree

Something strange is happening to Christmas. Usually, it’s the time when advertisers remind us to adore the company of our family and welcome all comers into our home. Christmas is sold as a season of selflessness and goodwill. But this year, with a collective “bah humbug”, the branding agents have decided that December is becoming a time of stress, queues and disasters waiting to happen. This rebranding is symptomatic of something starting to change; that something could just be the belated impact of e-commerce.

Amazon is responsible. Its omnipresent Christmas ad campaign tries to position the internet company as the real Santa Claus, with delivery vans as sleighs and modems replacing chimneys. These ads show a shopping experience rich with frustration, and complete with crowd scenes straight out of Empire of the Sun. Why risk venturing out, they suggest, when you can safely hunker down at the computer? Sainsbury’s online shopping is in on the act, too. The store offers to “take care of Christmas” – a responsibility it clearly believes its customers no longer want. Hide indoors, these companies now tell us, and don’t venture out until the whole ghastly thing is over.

Christmas can indeed herald higher-than-average suicide rates and soaring consumer debt. But, previously, marketing strategists had little choice but sleight of hand. Consumers had to be dragged to hellishly busy high streets: therefore, Christmas had to be a public experience of fun and family. London’s shared celebration became as much about the Selfridge’s Christmas window displays as it was about the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree. But internet shopping can begin to break this link between consumption and public space, allowing the latter to be described with renewed honesty. Online advertisers are now asking us to admit that we secretly hated Cliff Richard all along.

This represents an important breakthrough for closet Christmas-phobes, but an even more important one for e-commerce. In a post-mortem on previous internet Christmas sales figures, the E-commerce Times highlighted a failure to re-create the traditional Christmas experience: “Unfortunately for Amazon – and all of e-commerce – [their] efforts are falling short. In fact, all they show is exactly how limited e-tailers are in their ability to duplicate the lights, songs and shopping ambience of the holidays.”

In short, no matter how clever your website, it can’t smell of roasting chestnuts. So, the only answer is to change the way we think about the festivities themselves. Marketers have understood for a while now that e-commerce succeeds in areas where people need to make repeat purchases; but only this year have they worked out that nothing involves more repetition or more purchasing than another sodding Christmas. With a MORI survey revealing that roughly a quarter of British people will do some Christmas shopping online, the strategy may even be working.

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Yet Christmas is normally important to technology rather than the other way round: more than ten million Britons got their first mobile phone as a present. Christmas may still be make-or-break for new technologies, but technology companies are attempting to prove they wield the same power over the festive season itself.

Not only are these online shopping services tapping in to our darker feelings towards all things red, green and snowy, they also highlight a growing frustration with consumption itself. High street retailers have always laid claim to being the true home of Christmas. More recently, they have even suggested themselves as an antidote to their own poison. Starbucks, showing considerable brass, now wants to be a quiet retreat from the hectic hustle. But shopping is still a pain at the busiest time of the year. Enter stage left internet shopping, which has worked out that frustration with Christmas might be the Next Big Thing.

Jonathan Franzen’s epic blockbuster, The Corrections, told of real Christmas anxiety and family tensions far closer to most people’s reality than any concoction from Starbucks. But marketing to the frustrated remains tricky, particularly when the frustration might be with endless marketing itself.

Squaring this circle seems to be the new goal of online retailing. The holiday season advertising campaign for Ocado.com, Waitrose’s new (and ludicrously named) online shopping service, features pictures of toddlers throwing tantrums with the slogan: “When did you stop being so demanding?” Bizarrely, the customer is asked to identify with a stroppy three-year-old. We are encouraged to recall a better time of limitless demands culminating in lengthy lists for Santa. Thus internet shopping markets itself as the answer to seasonal frustration, while tightening the link between Christmas and consumption.

But the killer line from Amazon’s adverts remains “Delivery men are paid to be out in this” – crowds and bad weather. E-tailers hope to bring home the obvious truth: we don’t much like Christmas any more. But this isn’t true: we don’t hate Christmas; we hate what it has become.

James Crabtree and William Davies work on the iSociety research project at the Work Foundation, www.theisociety.net

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