By Julianne Malveaux
Did you notice that some stores are already touting Christmas sales? They are encouraging people to start buying for Christmas now. We’ve been experiencing this “Christmas creep” for years. Some of us are reluctant to call it “Christmas Creep” because there is no Christ or Christianity in the profligate spending that accompanies a season that should be defined by gratitude and reflection. The birth of Christ the Child should symbolize rebirth, the symbolism of the seven principles of Kwanzaa a signal to African American community building and spirituality.
Part of the reason for the Christmas creep is that fourth quarter spending can make or break annual sales for retailers. Lots of consumer electronics, jewelry, and even automobiles are disproportionately purchased during these fourth quarter months, although in the past this heavy spending was reserved for December. Not only will fourth quarter spending influence annual profits, but they will also signal the strength of the economic recovery that only a few are experiencing. If high-end retailers (Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman) see their sales boost while lower end retailers see their sales grow only modestly, that might be an indication that recovery is not trickling down. And for all the talk of the end of the Great Recession, the fact that incomes have remained flat means that recovery will remain slow.
During the third quarter of this year, spending was more sluggish than expected, so much so that some retailers are adjusting their spending forecasts downward. Some may even have less inventory on hard so that prices might rise a bit from demand. When toy retailers, for example, have shortages in this year’s popular toy, parents are likely to make return trips to a store both to check on the coveted toy and to buy “just one more thing” for children. And despite sluggish spending, the post-Thanksgiving Day stampedes are not a thing of the past when they are properly marketed,
This heavy Christmas marketing has a special impact on African American consumers, those who how have less income, more debt, and a likelihood of overspending during holidays because “stuff” means “love” for some. The Christmas creep gives youngsters more time to whine and cajole for “stuff” and places parents under more pressure to spend. While the spending may help stimulate the economy, it will depress the financial standing of those who participate in the spending game.
We live in a nation of over consumers, but African Americans are the ones who can least afford to play this game. One in eight has nothing – no savings, no investments; no tangible belongings (automobiles, for example). Fewer than half (compared to 70 percent of Whites) own their homes – the primary path to wealth accumulation for the middle class. About half have “bad” debt, or credit card debt. Few have saved for future tuition payments or retirement. Yet, some of these folks will queue up to spend money, all in the name of a Christmas shopping season that starts in October.
The holiday season is a good time to convey a series of economic and community building messages to African Americans. First, can you afford the holiday spending? Second, if you must shop, do some of your spending with Black-owned businesses. African Americans spend less than a tenth of their income with Black-owned businesses. Doubling the level of spending would increase the number of jobs that can be generated within the African American community.
Third, it ought to go without saying, but don’t pay full price for anything, especially at the end of the year. There are sales galore, and when you have the money, you ought to take advantage of them. Fourth, you can build community and affinity by giving someone the gift of a contribution to their favorite charity: a church building fund, sorority or fraternity capital campaign, or a scholarship fund. Fifth, use your 2014 holiday spending as a way to develop a budget for holiday 2015.
Christmas at Halloween? Only if you buy into the spending game, you will get tricked and predatory retailers treated by your behavior.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.