When I was little, my favorite time of year was the stretch between the end of October and January. There are the obvious milestones – Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, as well as watermark events like the first snow. Going to vote with my parents was always a big deal, and made me feel so cool (even though I was too little to really understand what was going on).
And of course, my hands down favorite, the arrival of the Sears Holiday Big Book.
Now, I may be dating myself by admitting this, but the Sears Holiday Big Book kept me company on many a cold night in late November and early December. I’d stretch out on the floor in our family room in my pajamas with a ball point pen, circling all the things I longed for. I’d thumb to the middle of the book, pausing to laugh at the pictures of kids in their underwear (side note, I knew someone who convinced his little brother he’d been ordered from the Big Book, and if he wasn’t good, he’d go back for a newer model), before digging into the pages and pages of toys. The order is still there in my head: baby toys, Barbies and other dolls, Hot Wheels and Legos, then the musical toys and bikes. As a kid, I had no clue, I would blow through that thing, circling with abandon, never stopping to think about what Santa could or couldn’t afford.
Sadly, the Big Book went the way of the dinosaurs in 2007. There are variations from Sears and some of their competitors, but it will never rival the raw magnitude of that two to three inch ream of paper rich with Technicolor dreams. My husband and I have both tried multiple times to explain the joy and glory of the Big Book to our son, but we fall short. Ironically, it’s not due to our inability to articulate what the Big Book was, but in our son’s inability to comprehend the concept of waiting for anything when it relates to content.
This is the child who has grown up in a digital world. If he’s curious, he can pull up the internet and Google an answer. If he wants something, he can find the item on Amazon and (with our permission) use one of the various gift cards he’s received for a birthday or holiday to purchase on item. Very simply, he has no concept of waiting, and therefore can’t appreciate the anticipation that comes with the arrival and slow perusal of the annual Big Book. I like to tease him that the art of dreaming as his parents knew it is lost on him.
That statement hit an entirely separate level of realization recently. To set the scene: it was a Saturday morning, and we were running low on paper towels and avocados, so we made a run to Costco. Indian summer was in full force in Northern Ohio, and our flip flops echoed as the smacked against the concrete of our local warehouse store. We were reveling in the chill of the air flowing through the aisle ways, and then we were smacked in the face with it.
Decorations. Wrapping paper. Greeting cards. Gift baskets and boxes.
It was late September, and the Halloween supplies were already picked over and ceding way to Christmas.
No wonder my child can’t appreciate the Big Book.
The reality is that, with the evolution of immediately available products and inexpensive, always on digital marketing, there’s no need to wait. Chains focusing on Halloween start emailing in early summer, and we’re seeing compression on companies to get out there bigger and better, faster. It’s why Black Friday circulars leak intentionally, well before they go to print. It’s why some retailers have decided to start their promotions and markdowns a full week before Thanksgiving. When products become commodities, anticipation is sacrificed to sales, and the mad rush at consumers begins.
This is why my child will never have the ability to understand and appreciate our nostalgia over the Big Book. It’s why my husband doesn’t shop until Christmas Eve, where he knows he’s going to get the best deals, and baring the hot items, will be able to go after what he thinks we’d enjoy most, even if we didn’t even realize they existed until two days before.
Anticipation has given way to always on and commoditization, and it’s forcing us as marketers to think differently about our consumer base, and use our channels of communication to promote and incent based on the intersection of our goals and their needs. Let’s call it the business version of aligning my nostalgia and my child’s expectation of always on.
More importantly, it’s accepting that the world has changed, and using the constant flow of data to get smarter, to understand why things happened, and to use that insight to plan and execute in a way that, while it won’t replicate the excitement of the Big Book, will trigger the modern approximation of circling the item in a catalog that drives to a transaction.
- Create the proxy interaction: Market to me as the proxy, and give me ways to play off my nostalgia to engage my child. Create tools so that my son can tag what he’s interested in so that it can be extended to grandparents or his uncle. It’s next generation multi-level marketing at scale.
- Learn before: There are things that you can know about me BEFORE you ever interact. Proximity to a physical location, presence of children, likelihood to buy, product affinities. Use that to create a meaningful dialogue that will speak to ME. In a digital world you can customize in ways that a traditional print catalog never allowed for, like showing Legos, musical instruments, video games, and ski gear. Imagine how many conceptual circles you’d get if you served up things that didn’t include Barbie Dolls to our household.
- Learn after: what worked? What didn’t work? The classic direct marketing paradigm doesn’t go away, it just evolves in the way you measure. Sorry to say it, but test cells are just as relevant today as they were in the seventies.
It’s all doable, but it requires just a bit of planning and adjustment. Hey, just consider it the grown-up version of Big Book anticipation!