The first Easter buns of 2007 appeared on Australian supermarket shelves in early January, and there were even sightings of Easter eggs next to checkouts on New Year’s Eve.
Many people (to date my straw polling has provoked reactions ranging from horror to dismay) are likely to feel rather “hot” and “cross” about the bringing forward of seasonal signifiers by several months, just as they may be inflamed by the jaunty strains of “Jingle Bells” piping out of shopping mall speakers in early October.
The retail industry, not satisfied by the intense round of pre- and post-Christmas sales that “book end” the seasonal gift-giving and over-eating frenzy, wants to smooth out purchasing peaks and troughs by creating one unbroken season of high consumption.
Such blatant, unimaginative manipulation of shopping patterns and annual cultural milestones may seem to make commercial sense, but it could be self defeating, with jaded, alienated consumers still in recovery from the last splurge. It is impossible to make something “special” when the usual means by which time is marked - the passage of natural and cultural seasons - all bleed into each other as themed, unmissable shopping opportunities.
This new chronological framework - “retail time” - seeks to overcome inconvenient intervals between promotional campaigns by modifying conventional rhythms of life, turning every day into a sales spectacular, and every block of time into a festival of plastic.
This strategy was pioneered in the USA, and made its mark in Australia quicker than you can ask “Trick or Treat?” For example, the 2007 Missouri Business Development Program Retail Promotion Calendar (helpfully compiled and disseminated by the University of Missouri as an extension activity) shows how most days of the year are a “Something Day”, overlapped by “Something Weeks and Months”.
Among my favourites on this list are “February 1, Bubble Gum Day”, “May 1-7, Eat Dessert First Week”, “May 15, Nylon Stockings Anniversary (1940)”, “November 8, Cook Something Bold and Pungent Day”, and “March 1-31, National Frozen Food Month”.
Some of these landmarks, like “September 24, Family Day - A Day to Eat Dinner with your Children” and “October 1-31, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month”, have community service functions, but they still attempt to place the retail promotion calendar at the centre of human life.
Some may enjoy having marketeers mess with their sense of time, and happy to have spring declared amid the gloom winter, or to be told that high summer is really a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” demanding an autumn sale.
The retail justification is that if it works on the balance sheet, there must be a demand and need for such products. This is a disingenuous position - such strategies as the creation of a specific retail climate, judicious manipulation of retail environments (including pathways and point of sale), and harnessing children’s “pester power” shape the desired outcome, rather than simply find unfulfilled consumers.
The funnelling of customers into Australia’s highly concentrated supermarket sector is so assured that no simple demand-supply equation can be presented as cover. There is no hiding place from the latest sales campaign that saturates public, retail and media space. Is it seriously being argued that there is a large pent up demand for Easter goods during the long summer school holidays? Or that vast numbers of customers relish the “opportunity” to have all their Christmas shopping duties concluded months in advance?
There will be unshakeable apologists for commodity exchange in any form, at any time who will point to the value to the economy of constantly priming casual consumption, and the many employment benefits derived from investing lumps of chocolate, dough and sundry other products with “out of time” meaning.
For such people, who like to claim mastery of a “real world” that produces such bizarre phenomena, there is no limit to this logic of excess. For example, why must we wait all year for January 26 to come around for something called Australia Day? Every day, after all, is in some sense “Australia Day”, and so on, ad nauseum - quite literally, given the formulaic reliance on the ingestion of sweet, sticky foodstuffs.
The rest of us, though, can declare to major retailers that we are, indeed, DUPES. That is, proud to be Deniers of the Untimely Promotional Exploitation of Seasons. But for a limited time only.