Throughout history, cultures all over the world have celebrated in December. From ancient festivals of light like the Hindu holiday Diwali and the Jewish celebration Hanukkah to the relatively new Kwanzaa and the regional Boxing Day, humans have long found reasons to light a few candles and throw a party during what, in many parts of the world, are the year's darkest, coldest and shortest days.
As time has passed and life has changed, so, too, have the ways in which we celebrate. Especially here, in the United States, where every holiday has become an opportunity to sell greeting cards, decorations and candy. And in that drive to better market the holidays and increase sales, one holiday has emerged as the granddaddy of all December celebrations: Christmas. To Christians, it's the day Jesus was born. To the retail industry, it's a multibillion dollar cash cow.
As this year's push toward Christmas began, the country was not only electing a president but was also inundated with news of a potential economic disaster come the first of the year. Neither were boons to holiday spending, but this year's calendar--with its four full December weekends for shopping--could be.
How are economic forces shaping spending habits this year and what can you do to save a few extra bucks? How can you be a conscientious consumer and what's the best gift you possibly give this year? Boise Weekly has some answers.
A Numbers Game
From Halloween to the fiscal cliff, holiday spending speculation is a moving target
Black Friday. Small Business Saturday. Cyber Monday. It's the retail trifecta of holiday shopping that kicks off the biggest surge in consumer spending the United States sees all year long.
Even while boxes of miniature candies wrapped festively in black and orange lined retailers' shelves next to messy heaps of vampire capes and Wolverine masks in anticipation of Halloween, some stores were slyly priming their shelves for the arrival of Christmas. Soon, fake trees and inflatable yard Santas would stand next to festive outdoor lights and the first few strands of garland.
Just as the stealthy red and green rollout began, the National Retail Federation, the world's largest retail trade association, reported that it expected consumer spending on Halloween to increase by about 10 percent per person, driving the overall total spending on the Oct. 31 holiday--including candy, decorations and costumes--to about $8 billion.
Economists looked at increased Halloween spending as a sign of consumer confidence, that Americans were starting to feel less pinched in the pocketbook, and reports circulated that year-end holiday spending was expected to increase by more than 4 percent.
Initial numbers for the 2012 shopping season corroborated theories that Americans were feeling less strapped. Over the four-day Thanksgiving shopping weekend, Americans spent a total of $59.1 billion, almost 13 percent more than last year. Online shopping had a record year.
On Black Friday alone, Americans spent $1.04 billion, a whopping 26 percent more than in 2011, according to digital business analytics firm Comscore Inc. On Cyber Monday shoppers forked over another $1.5 billion.
Recently released data showed that same day across the pond was the largest online shopping day ever in the United Kingdom, with a 32 percent increase.
While those numbers look good from an economic standpoint, some say they may be sugar coated. A proposed 4.1 percent increase in holiday spending is good news, but last year's increase was more than 6 percent. And still other survey results, such as CNBC's All-America Economic Survey, predict consumer spending this year to be virtually the same as last year, up a mere $1.43 on average. Then there's all this talk of the fiscal cliff.
In mid-November, the NRF urged Washington, D.C., to put an end to its fiscal cliff bickering before Black Friday, lest it put a damper on early holiday spending. Then, on Cyber Monday, the White House released a report warning that the fiscal cliff could hurt spending over the holiday season.
In Boise, some retailers say the season was off to a slow start but that numbers are near or above normal compared to last year. Sara McClaran, owner of Indie Made, thinks the slow start was due to other factors.
"My own personal theory is that the election really distracted people so they weren't shopping as early as usual," said McClaran. "I think as soon as Thanksgiving hit, people realized and we're definitely busy now."
McClaran's instincts were correct: Indie Made finished November up 30 percent compared to November 2011, but down 6 percent for the year to date.
Although it's impossible to estimate just how many shoppers took to downtown Boise over Thanksgiving weekend, parking numbers track a portion of that traffic. The weekend before Thanksgiving the Downtown Public Parking garages processed 7,746 tickets compared to 11,177 over the holiday weekend.
One bright spot for not only retailers but those shoppers who wait until this last minute? There is one extra full weekend of shopping in December compared to last year, when Christmas fell on Sunday.