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From frugal festivities to fancy feasts

Concordia associate professor highlights consumer and marketing trends during the holiday season
December 12, 2012
By Tom Peacock

The holiday season is upon us. As members of the Concordia community begin to plan shopping trips and prepare for festive feasts, NOW chatted about trends for this holiday season with Associate Professor Jordan LeBel, who teaches the Marketing of Food and Experience Marketing in the John Molson School of Business.

You’re preparing for two upcoming appearances on Radio-Canada. What are you going to be discussing?

One is an interview for RDI’s show Économie to talk about the holiday spending season, and then I’m doing another piece the week after on what’s called La simplicité volontaire (voluntary simplicity). They want to juxtapose this subject with a discussion about why the holiday season is so important for retailers.

This past summer, during the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference, my tour group spent 10 days in Nova Scotia, during which we visited a farm with two individuals who are living off the grid, produce their own electricity and do everything themselves. It was very, very interesting. We learned a lot as a group, and it opened my eyes to what used to be a marginal segment, but has grown over the past few years. As it turns out, more marketing research is being conducted on the reasons and motivations underlying this lifestyle.

You might not go as far as buying nothing for Christmas, but if you're uncertain about the economy or you have friends embracing this lifestyle, it may well influence your spending, even at an unconscious level.

How does this trend fit into your own research?

I can’t say that it’s a main research theme of mine, but I’m curious about it. My focus is on the pursuit of pleasure, food and retailing. A few years ago I published a paper on various types of pleasure, where my co-author and I found that different types of pleasure can be experienced at different levels of intensity and are usually accompanied by scripts and rituals. What I find fascinating in the buy-less movement is how it relates to pleasure. I have never been a supporter of the buy-more/consume-more approach to marketing. I have consulted for large and small food companies where I help them explore a truly more responsible approach to consumption. The answer often lies with education of consumers and people within organizations, universities and ourselves included.

What is trending right now in terms of gift-giving?

When you look at the surveys, and you look at the top things that people want to give as part of the holiday season, I find it interesting that gift cards are the number 1 item that people plan to buy and would like to receive.

Is this because people don’t want to give their friends and family gifts that they don’t want?

There are a number of reasons for their popularity. They’re convenient. You don’t have to wrack your brain to figure out what to buy for that friend or relative. You do away with issues of size, colour and preferences. You can also order them online. The influence of the internet and social media is undeniable here.

For the person who receives it, he or she can buy whatever they want, and save a bit of money. On the other hand, I always find that when I give a gift, I like to personalize it.

Any interesting new holiday marketing trends that have caught your eye this year?

Certainly the use of social media has increased dramatically. A big lesson from 2011 is that people were even buying gifts using their phones and this is likely to increase this year. So smart retailers are adapting. The Bay, for example, has this strategy that combines social media and flash sales whereby they let their Twitter followers  know about a time-sensitive sale. They’ll send out a tweet that says, for example, 25 per cent off on Michael Kors purses today only.

I was doubtful that such measures would work (I need more than 25 per cent off to attract me to a store!) until I actually saw it work with my own eyes. The Bay certainly seems to have built quite a loyal following.

Another surprising trend this year is that retailers have embraced the pre-Christmas sales to a very big extent. They’re borrowing a page out of the American playbook, and Black Friday was celebrated even on this side of the border. The sales start December 1 if not the last week of November. With the economy teetering on the edge somewhat, retailers are seeing it as a way to attract more consumers

Is this year’s holiday season going to be a good one for retailers?

So far, if you look at the numbers, both on this side and the US side, they seem to be up. Are they up because consumers are fed up of being careful, and penny pinching? Or are they truly optimistic about the state of the economy? Analysts in the States are watching the results of the holiday spending season with great interest, because they’re seeing this as a sign of confidence — or not — on the part of the consumer. In Quebec, surveys show that consumers plan on giving a few more gifs this year. The average number of gifts that people plan on giving went up from 6.7 last year to 7.1 this year according to the Quebec Council on Retailing. That's a significant jump.

Have you seen anything interesting on the food-marketing front yet this holiday season?

Not specifically for the holiday season, but the big thing that’s happening is that the notion of health-above-anything is starting to run out of steam. For a number of years, health was driving the whole food innovation. And now, people want something that tastes good first. If it’s healthy, then great! There are, of course, a number of LTOs or limited-time offers this season that play on the traditional symbols. Sugar is big this year. Pringles even has a white chocolate and mint version.

Another thing to look at is this notion of connoisseurship, which is is taking on a new dimension. I’m doing a talk in Banff in May on how Canadians talk about food, focusing on food connoisseurship, and its evolving nature. You go to restaurants now and people are taking pictures of their food, posting it on Facebook, even before they eat. It’s more important to tell the world what you’re going to eat than actually eating it and enjoying it. There’s an interesting dynamic there. I find it interesting because I was a restaurant reviewer for Distinguished Restaurants of North America years ago and when I used to take pictures in top restaurants, it was frowned upon. Now it's encouraged. I don’t know where it’s going but it’s interesting.

Related links:
•    Jordan LeBel’s homepage
•    John Molson School of Business

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