TODAY IS Holiday Eve, and you know what that means: Just a few hours until Holiday itself!
Maybe tonight you’ll wander around the neighborhood singing Holiday carols, then you’ll put the kids to bed so Holiday Claus (“Santa’’ being too close to “Saint’’ for comfort) can take his time strewing all sorts of gifts around the Holiday Tree.
And then tomorrow, as you sit around in the aftermath of the unwrapping, trying to read indecipherable instructions and wondering why even stuffed toys now require AAA batteries, take a moment to pause and reflect on the true meaning of Holiday itself: It’s our best chance yet of knocking down this recession. And you, the American consumer, deserve much of the credit.
Yes, indeed, it’s been a bang-up shopping season. It kicked off just over four weeks ago with an abbreviated Thanksgiving (“Thanks for the turkey, folks - time to go to the mall!’’) and has been running pell-mell since. In October, the National Retailers Association had predicted Holiday retail sales would climb by 2.8 percent over 2010. Now it says, with relish, that they’ll grow by 3.8 percent. Meanwhile, online shopping is seeing unprecedented gains; research firm ComScore says sales are running 15 percent ahead of last year. Even better, consumers are doing all of this shopping despite fewer big discounts being available this year. That’s right: More of you are paying full price and, while that may not be so great for your pocketbooks, it’s certainly fattening up the profits of everyone from Macy’s to Amazon.
All the numbers aren’t yet in, of course. We still have the mad rush of today and then the Monday after Holiday, when we all flock back to the stores to return the dumb things people gave us. But so far the data look good.
The entire Thanksgiving to Holiday shopping frenzy is, of course, crazy. The origins of Holiday may be lost in time (something to do with a birth, I think) but buying stuff was probably not part of it. The focus on gift-giving itself is irrational. In theory, trading gifts back and forth gives you less satisfaction than simply spending money on yourself - after all, you know your own needs better than do others. And some of the purchases we make are downright bizarre, especially gift cards, which altogether abandon the pretense of buying for others, instead handing over to them the burden of picking their own gift. (Why we don’t just give cash instead is beyond me. A $50 gift card is apparently OK, but for some reason we think cash is crass.)
Still, as foolish as shopping season may be, we all should be happy it occurs. Consumer spending is two-thirds of the US economy. When consumers become more free-handed with their dollars, we end up with what economists call a virtuous circle. Your dollars spent at a store mean the retailer can hire a clerk, who in turn can spend money at a store, and so on. Things accelerate upwards until we are all awash in jobs and money. But when disaster strikes, virtue turns vicious. That’s what happened after the 2008 crash, when we all retrenched.
Remember in the summer, when economists were predicting a double-dip recession? That fear is dissipating, and it’s because of us - consumers. Granted, these are trying times: gyrating stock markets, a possible collapse of the euro zone, gridlocked politicians, high unemployment, falling average incomes, natural disasters, and global upheavals from the Middle East to North Korea. But despite it all, Americans seem to have returned to the basic optimism that has for the most part characterized this country. (The Conference Board, for example, reports that consumer confidence jumped an impressive 15.1 points in November, even as corporate CEOs are turning pessimistic. ) As silly as it may sound, going shopping is ultimately a sign of faith. Not “faith’’ as in the religion-related events rumored to have given rise to Holiday, but rather faith in the nation as a whole to persevere and thrive. In 2012, that faith - seen now in the crowded parking lots of area malls - may translate into reality.
Holy Christmas! Wouldn’t that be great?
Originally published in the Boston Globe on December 24, 2011.