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5 Ways Companies Are Already Ruining the Holidays

Why do we have to start thinking about Christmas in freaking October?

Depending on whom you ask, the holiday season is either a time for giving thanks for life’s many blessings and basking in family togetherness (your mom) or the period between September and December when retailers try to maximize their profits for the fiscal year (business owners).

Of course the holiday season is really both of things at once: a symbol of wholesomeness and greed, giving and getting, joy and emptiness. Just like grandma’s cooking, it is both good and bad. Always has been, probably always will be.

But it does seem like every year holiday consumerism ratchets up just a little bit more. Somewhat paradoxically, the recent downturn in the economy may have made things worse than ever in that regard; rather than just accepting that Americans have less money with which to buy Bratz dolls, retailers have responded by going to greater lengths to squeeze every precious dollar they can out of shoppers. The National Retail Federation predicts that consumers’ holiday spending will increase less this year than it has in recent years, causing shoppers to be conservative with their gift lists. That means retailers have to fight harder for every consumer dollar.

Of course businesses need money to survive and to maintain a workforce, but that doesn’t excuse them from pressuring consumers into lousy deals that could land them in debt and making all of our lives generally miserable for three-plus months out of the year. Likewise, scammers and even charities with dubious morals should be admonished for taking advantage of the season. Here is how retailers are trying their hardest to ruin our holidays.

1. “Christmas creep” sets in.

Christmas creep is the phenomenon of stores busting out their late-season holiday merchandise -- most notably, the Christmas crap -- earlier and earlier each year. The term also applies to annoying holiday advertisements, which we now have to suffer through for nearly a quarter of the calendar year.

Target is 2012’s worst offender, having unleashed its first Christmas ad in mid-October. Doesn’t it just seem wrong to be looking at Christmas lights on TV when you haven’t even picked a Halloween costume yet? Well it is wrong, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, as the Consumerist notes, the unspoken industry rule is that Christmas ads don’t hit airwaves until November 1 (or, this year, after the election). For another thing, it goes against Target’s own standards, which for years mercifully spared us from their Christmas ads until after Thanksgiving. “Guests really tire of these messages when they’re started too early in the season, and it doesn’t align with where they are in their lives,” said the company’s previous chief marketing officer. That’s a nice sentiment, but apparently it got tossed out the window when that guy left the company.

The website RetailMeNot has embraced the melding of all our holidays by renaming the season OctoNovemCember and giving it the semi-inclusive mascot Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus. It’s a cute enough campaign, but the reason for its existence -- our seemingly never-ending holiday shopping season -- is not.

2. Stores push layaway, which can be bad for consumers.

Like so many services marketed to lower income customers, layaway can be a bad deal. There was a time when layaway was more solidly pro-consumer: stores let you pay for items over a period of time without incurring interest charges, making layaway a much better deal than credit cards. But these days most major retailers that have continued or revived their layaway programs now charge fees. As Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court said in a radio interview last holiday season, “Depending on the price and the policy, you could be paying a lot more than if you'd put the purchase on a credit card.”