Smart Consumer: Does it make financial sense to do your Christmas shopping now?
John Cradden on the gains that can be made by getting festive in October
You might have to rub your eyes and wonder if you really do need to go to Specsavers. But no, there's no mistake.
We've just been enjoying an Indian summer, and Halloween is still a full month away, but take a walk today down certain aisles of your local supermarket and there is a good chance you will see them.
Mince pies. Selection boxes. Christmas cakes and puddings. And just in case you think they were put there by mistake, they are surrounded by distinctly seasonal displays.
Tesco seems to be quite actively engaged in the practice, judging by the reports on Twitter, Facebook et al and readers who have posted photographic evidence to satirical news websites.
Indeed, as reported in this paper, Tesco had rolled out its selection boxes and tins of sweets in early September -- when there was still over 100 shopping days to go to Christmas. The supermarket chain said it had been doing this for the last four or five years.
Other supermarkets, including Supervalu, hinted that their Christmas campaigns would be starting soon.
But as well as the supermarket aisles, Christmas lights have been spotted in Limerick city centre, while a large inflatable Santa is reportedly atop a hotel building in west Dublin.
Faced with difficult trading conditions, traders here seem to have decided that Christmas needs to start even earlier.
1 But why? It's still three months away.
"Retailers have had a very difficult trading year thus far and they are now relying on the Christmas season to buoy up sales," says Fionnuala Carolan, editor of grocery trade magazine Shelflife.
Industry figures show that the Irish grocery market has fallen 0.5% in value on this time last year, so retailers know they have to try and take advantage of any way they can to make up lost sales, she said.
Susan Birrell of Deloitte says: "Based on CSO figures recently released, which show that retail sales fell by 3.6% in August, retailers may be trying to pull back some of sales from over the summer months by making Christmas products available earlier."
2 Okay, fair enough, they have to try. But do they have to try so early?
Stephen Wynne, editor of another grocery trade publication Checkout, says: "I agree, it does seem very early, but if you talk to retailers they will tell you it fits in with people planning their shopping in advance.
"Just as people might budget for the weekly shop, they will argue that there is a certain demographic that will plan Christmas shopping in advance."
He says it is also worth noting how major retailers increasingly try to build 'events' around certain times of the year, such as Halloween and Christmas. "Big events generally have long lead-in times," says Wynne.
3 Well, I'm still keeping my money in my pocket for now.
It certainly may be too soon to tell if retailers' efforts to push Christmas trade even earlier this year will have the desired effect, but consumers probably won't be tempted to spend more anyway, says Birrell, who oversees the research for Deloitte's annual Christmas spending survey.
"One of the trends that we have seen from the annual Deloitte survey of Christmas spending over the last number of years is that consumers have been diligently sticking to their Christmas budgets, and these are unlikely to increase significantly this year," she says.
"People will still have the same amount of money to spend."
4 But if I do my Christmas shopping now, am I likely to get better value?
This is the big question. On the one hand, some smart shoppers are now planning to do the trick of holding back on their Christmas shopping until the last minute because so many shops last year started their January sales before Christmas.
"The temptation to hang on for a bargain has long been a feature of Christmas shopping in Ireland, with people holding out for Christmas Eve buys at January sale prices," says Birrell.
On the other hand, some retailers may also be planning more promotions and sales in the coming weeks than they normally would at this time of year, mainly because consumers now expect them.
"Increasingly, retailers are more flexible in their strategies, and so increased promotional offers and discounts may well be more prominent throughout the entire festive season," says Birrell.
"Retailers have recognised that consumers are determined to get the value they expect, and will shop around to do so."
5 Besides the advantage of getting it out of the way, is there much point in buying Christmas stuff early at the full price?
A quick visit to our local Tesco, Supervalu and Dunnes Stores shows that stocking up on Christmas-themed items is a false economy unless they are actually discounted.
In Tesco, there is a whole aisle dedicated to Christmas confectionary with 850g tins of Roses/Heroes/Quality Street retailing at €6 instead of around €12. Even in the toiletries section there are '3 for 2' offers on gift packs of aftershave or perfume.
There are some similar offers in Dunnes and Supervalu (mainly the half-price 850g chocolate/sweet tins), but no seasonal displays just yet -- thankfully.
Your favourite mince pies can be bought anytime from your local supermarket, so do look out for a useful discount if buying early.
For non-food items, buying early may only make sense if you're buying online, as you won't have any delivery issues.
6 I would like to support my local traders, though.
Well, the good news is that some local retailers are already thinking up Christmas loyalty promotions to try to encourage shoppers to stay with them from now until the end of the year.
According to Carolan, the owner of a Gala store in Co Kerry is offering its customers a free turkey and ham this Christmas if they fill in a loyalty card between now and then.
"Within two days of launching this promotion, sales had picked up in the store," she said.
"Consumers are constantly chasing value these days, and retailers are responding in any way they can."
Early shopping pros and cons
1 No panic buying, less stress
2 More time to plan what to buy, so less likely to go over your budget
3 You'll come up with better, more spontaneous gift ideas because you're not under pressure
4 More time to make stuff, including home-made gifts
5 More time to enjoy the festivities, see friends and family and soak up the atmosphere
6 Santa and his elves get more time to fulfil orders
1 More time to stress out about what to get people
2 The longer you have, the more presents you might end up buying (particularly if you have small children or relatives)
3 You're reinforcing the commercialisation of Christmas by shopping so early
4 No one wants the homemade gifts anyway
5 More chance of irritating others around you with your smugness
6 More chance of friends or family finding the presents you've hidden