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5 Ways Companies Are Already Ruining the Holidays

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

The bottom line is that layaway policies are designed to sell more stuff, and shoppers should always be wary of stores trying to make more money off of them. But hey, if you’re a savvy shopper and figure out how to use the system to your advantage, by all means do. Just read the fine print.

3. Black Friday gets out of control, and it’s not even a good deal.

There are two types of people in this world: 1) those who find it enjoyable to get up at 5am (or earlier) on a non-work day to go to K-Mart with thousands of other people and 2) reasonable human beings. Joking aside, the day after Thanksgiving is a high holy day for retailers and many shoppers, even as other sale days like Cyber Monday attract more and more consumers. For several years now it’s been the busiest shopping day of the year, and the day when stores often start being “in the black” (turning a profit).

Stores tout Black Friday deals, including “door busters” that require shoppers to line up well before dawn, for weeks before the big event. But is Black Friday really worth it for shoppers? In many cases, no. “Black Friday is for the retailers to go from the red into the black. It’s not really for people to get great deals on the most popular products,” University of Washington computer science professor Oren Etzioni told the New York Times last November. Etzioni, who studies artificial intelligence and helped develop the Farecast airline price predictor, used his expertise to study holiday season bargains and found that many items are cheaper in the weeks after Black Friday and at other times during the year. So Black Friday is good deal for stores, but not the best deal for shoppers.

This is especially true when you consider the rise in violence and mayhem that we’ve seen on Black Friday in recent years. Last year alone, two people were shot, fifteen others pepper sprayed, and one man collapsed and died in different stores around the country.

This year maybe try celebrating Buy Nothing Day instead.

4. Your mom might get scammed on Cyber Monday. (OK, and you might too.)

Nothing says “holiday spirit” like “the 12 Scams of Christmas”! That’s a real, sadly necessary thing distributed by McAfee to keep your mom (and you) safe from the scammers who try to take advantage of the uptick in online shopping during the holiday season. The most common scams include mobile malware, bogus Facebook contests, phishing schemes, and even downloadable holiday screensavers:

Bringing holiday cheer to your home or work PC sounds like a fun idea to get into the holiday spirit, but be careful. A recent search for a Santa screensaver that promises to let you “fly with Santa in 3D” is malicious. Holiday-themed ringtones and e-cards have been known to be malicious too.

Seriously?!

This problem is likely to get worse this year, as online shopping is expected to increase by 12 percent this year, compared to 2011. More online shoppers, more scams to take advantage of them.

5. You can’t even trust the charities.

The Salvation Army’s ubiquitous red kettles make a lot of people feel better about shopping at big box stores around the holidays. Spend some money at Walmart, give a few bucks to charity -- it all works out, right?

Unfortunately, for all the good the Salvation Army might do, the group undermines that with its discriminatory anti-gay policies. Gay rights activists have long targeted the charity for denying services to LGBTQ citizens under the justification that homosexuality is a sin. Earlier this year the group got into especially hot water when one of its spokespeople said on an Australian radio show that he agrees gay people deserve to die.

Activists have targeted the Red Kettle campaign in particular. Gay rights activist Bil Browning writes at the Bilerico Project:

On its webpage, the group claims that "the services of The Salvation Army are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation." While the words are nice, their actions speak volumes. They blatantly ignore the position statement and deny LGBT people services unless they renounce their sexuality, end same-sex relationships, or, in some cases, attend services "open to all who confess Christ as Savior and who accept and abide by The Salvation Army's doctrine and discipline." In other words, if you're gay or lesbian, you don't qualify.

The organization also has a record of actively lobbying governments worldwide for anti-gay policies - including an attempt to make consensual gay sex illegal. (Yes, you're paying lobbyists with those donations.)....

Instead of donating to the Salvation Army, choose a different charity that will help everyone without prejudice.

Indeed, the takeaway here isn’t that you should avoid giving to charity this holiday season. Quite the contrary! Just don’t give to a group that uses bell ringers and holiday cheer to mask its hateful policies. Browning suggests instead donating to Goodwill, the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, or Habitat for Humanity.

Lauren Kelley is the activism and gender editor at AlterNet and a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon, Time Out New York, the L Magazine, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.