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Christmas Trends in Retail Marketing Over the Years

How we celebrate Christmas has changed over the centuries, from the Holy Days and Fasting Days Act of 1551 requiring citizens to walk to a Christian church service on Christmas day, to the annual Queen’s Speech broadcast on BBC1. Traditions have come and gone and there’s little doubt that the way we celebrate the Christmas holiday season will continue to evolve. As such, how we advertise and market the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ has been an ever-changing tide from the introduction of the telephone for telesales to the traditional Christmas catalogue to the mass accessibility of the internet for digital marketing.

We take a look at the retail marketing strategies over the decades from print and window shop displays to the iconic John Lewis TV ads and paid sponsored content on social media channels like Facebook and Instagram. What are retailers doing differently and what has stood the test of time to delight customers year after year during the holiday season?

First thing to notice in early Christmas ads is their emphasis on the product’s features and price. Rowntree Christmas print ads from the 20s feature heavily on the product itself with old Woolworths ads even highlighting specific product prices.

Even as we move to the 50s you still find shop windows packed full of products on display in comparison to today’s lavish and intricate Christmas shop windows such as the more story-orientated Fenwicks windows of recent years. However, the emphasis on products is still a mainstay for children’s toys with the likes of Hamley’s maintaining window displays primarily featuring the products themselves.

Fast-forward a few more years and you can still see this direct marketing tactic in Woolworths’ Christmas TV ads of the 80s. In contrast, you can see the shift in marketing strategy away from product benefits and prices and toward more abstract emotional appeals with the happy, moving feelings we attribute to the holidays – for example, in ads like the 2015 Sainsbury’s Christmas advert for Mog the cat.

Wollworths' TV Advert

Sainsbury's TV Advert

In the 1980’s and 1990’s the Christmas edition of the Argos catalogue provided the marketing exposure needed for many of the must-have toys and games each Christmas. Even if they ended up being purchased in retailers other than Argos, the catalogue was almost a replacement for a letter to Santa, with children from across the country circling items on their wish list.

More importantly, Christmas ads have become ingrained in society in their own right. As customers queue to see the annual Christmas Fenwick’s windows or watch the ever-anticipated John Lewis ads, you can see the shift in what these ads mean to society and how consumers accept them as more akin to entertainment.

Tweets from October anticipating the arrival of the John Lewis Christmas TV advert:

So much so, John Lewis ties their ads in with social media hashtags like #BusterTheBoxer – a TV ad posted to John Lewis’s YouTube channel which gained more than 25 million views.

John Lewis TV Advert

It’s apparent that retail holiday marketing has changed over the years with the mass production of smartphones and indulgence in social media apps on mobile. Statistics show that US adults spent a mere 46 minutes on mobile media daily in 2011, compared with today’s 258 daily minutes in 2017 – a consumer behaviour trend we would expect to be mirrored in the UK.

With more and more consumers taking to their smartphones and viewing ads on social apps, a new territory to explore this year will be Instagram stories and live video – these features will experience their first Christmas this year. Now that both Instagram stories and live video feature ad capabilities, this expands the available online channels for retailers to communicate with customers.

With the diversification of marketing channels, app updates, features and more, it can be hard to determine where to place your Christmas marketing efforts in a sea of opportunity. This decision-making process becomes even more complicated as you determine your messaging and visuals to stand out from the crowded arena of advertising messaging in order to entertain your audience.

If you need help with your retail holiday marketing, at AlphaGraphics, we specialise in helping retail businesses run end-to-end tailored marketing campaigns to improve lead generation. To find out more, visit: