For a couple of years after university, I hustled chinos and polo shirts at an Eddie Bauer in downtown Toronto. One early January morning, I cracked open a delivery to find a mountain of pleated golf shorts, in every shade of beige. Sending summer wear in parka season seemed like a shipping error. But two days later, a family came into the store, in preparation for a winter getaway to Florida. Did we happen to have any shorts?
That family wanders through my mind each autumn, prompted by the annual chorus of complaints about Christmas arriving too early in TV ads and mall decor. Starbucks launched its holiday offerings on Nov. 1 this year with a campaign that includes a red cup icon and the hashtag #RedCups on Twitter. Many users responded with a hashtag of their own: #toosoon. “Retail brands often take a hit with negative consumer perceptions when they decorate for Christmas too soon,” marketer Linda Duke warned in an NBC News interview.
That view fundamentally misunderstands the market’s demands. Retailers aren’t thrusting the spirit upon us—they’re catching up with shoppers’ needs. Marks & Spencer, the venerable British chain, reported that “Christmas” was the most common search term on its website in the first week of September. According to Nielsen, more than one-third of Americans had started their holiday shopping by Sept. 23 this year; by Oct. 19, the figure had climbed to 43%. In 2014, Nielsen reported 22% of respondents had begun holiday shopping by mid-October, suggesting the number of early shoppers doubled in a single year.
The reason for this trend isn’t a barrage of marketing. Retailers have kept roughly the same holiday timetable for a century. In October 1954, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix published a story fretting about Santas appearing in department stores too early. “If this sort of thing goes, children will get tired of Father Christmas long before Christmas comes.” (Needless to say, Santa fatigue has yet to become an issue.) Even those #toosoon Starbucks cups arrived only a week earlier than they did in 2007. It’s not the stores that are changing—it’s us.
Likely driving our ever-earlier Christmas preparation is the shift from shopping at the mall to on the web. Three-quarters of Americans plan on shopping online this holiday season, exceeding the 72% who intend to go to the mall, says Nielsen. And Amazon will be the top shopping destination for U.S. consumers this year, according to a survey by Rubicon, a digital advertising firm. Online shopping rewards early action: Shipping times and fees—and lost-package stress—are lower if you start sooner.
Starbucks doesn’t directly benefit from this digital shift, but it has its own good reason to prolong the season. Holiday beverages are among its most popular; the company partly credited a 9% bump in its core business in the last quarter of 2014 to the launch of its new Chestnut Praline Latte. But the popularity of Starbucks’ red holiday cups now exceeds the hot drinks they hold. They have become symbols more important than the products they originally symbolized, drawing people to a business without a clear holiday connection. Two million Starbucks gift cards were sold on Christmas Eve alone last year. From heralding the start of the season to saving the last-minute shopper, Starbucks—like Eddie Bauer those many years ago—is a company that sees what its customers truly need, not just what they say they want.