Friday, October 19, 2018

These retailers have already started playing Christmas music

There's a line from a Raymond Chandler novel in which hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe surveys the scene along Hollywood Boulevard and grumbles that stores were "already beginning to fill up with overpriced Christmas junk, and the daily papers were beginning to scream about how terrible it would be if you didn't get your Christmas shopping done early. It would be terrible anyway; it always is."

The irony to the modern reader is that this grim complaint from 1953's The Long Goodbye takes place a week after Thanksgiving.

In 2017, when the phenomenon of Christmas Creep has inched some stores' holiday shopping displays and music back to October or earlier, those early Christmas displays that made Marlowe even more dour than usual wouldn't raise an eyebrow.

In Tampa Bay malls and elsewhere across the U.S., Christmas 2017 has arrived, visually. The massive sleigh and fake-snow-covered trees for Santa's Flight Academy at International Plaza have occupied floor space since before Halloween, and holiday decor began this week at Westshore Plaza in Tampa. The city's decorations are up along St. Petersburg's Central Avenue.

More subtle is the creep of Christmas music into our ears. Tampa Bay's b98.7 FM flipped to 24-hour Christmas music on Monday, and they're kind of late. According to industry news site Radio Insite, the nation's first station of 2017 to flip to all Christmas, all the time was New Jersey's Easy 93.1, which has been jingle bell rocking since Oct. 20.

In stores, the switch to holiday music can be carefully calculated to gradually immerse you in that warm bath of Christmas cheer. Walmart, for instance, starts Nov. 14 when it begins "sprinkling" holiday music into its regular mix, then gradually increases the ratio until they're 100 percent I'll Be Home for Christmas-ing by Black Friday.

More surprising: Walmart actually starts playing less holiday music the very next day, and gradually decreases the amount of holiday tunes until returning to normal the day after Christmas.

Target has, for most of its history, not played any music at all in its thousands of stores, holiday or otherwise. That changed this year as 180 newly-remodeled stores introduced background music. They'll flip to holiday tunes on Black Friday (all of the company's Tampa Bay stores remain totally music-free).

For the past few years, a great internet debate has raged on Twitter in early November. That's when those who can't seem to wait any longer admit proudly or sheepishly that they're already listening to Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas Is You.





They collide with the "it's not even Thanksgiving!" hardliners who are there to let you know they're angry about unwanted ear cheer, judging anyone who's enjoying it. One popular line in the sand seems to be Thanksgiving, the date many deem appropriate for earliest Christmas music listening.





The Tampa Bay Times reached out to 100 top retailers to ask, when do you start playing holiday music? Several dozen responded.

The southern California-based grocery store chain Stater Bros. was the only retailer we could find that waits all the way until December to start. Meanwhile, Best Buy began mixing in holiday tunes on Oct. 22, the earliest of any retailer that would reveal their plans.



Retail background music in general is more strategic than ever. There are consultants for helping retailers create playlists that are perfectly on-brand, and streaming music services made only for stores and restaurants.

Starbucks actually employs two people whose job is to curate the Spotify playlists played in all its coffee shops. That company, by the way, keeps its holiday music plans under tighter wraps than even the design of its hotly-awaited holiday cups. Dunkin Donuts offers franchisees a subscription to Dunkin Radio, where programmers with decades of experience in "background music programming" match music to the feel of Dunkins in different U.S. regions.

There's good news for Grinches : there's a trend toward less holiday music. Danny Turner, a programming executive with Mood Media, which curates and provides music for large retailers, says stores are blending holiday music with non-holiday music. Some are waiting later to start it, and some stores are choosing to go with very little, or none at all.



"Some of those folks look at it as making their store a welcome respite from the onslaught," Turner said. They're also thinking more about store associates who ultimately hear the music more than anyone, Turner said, because "if they're not happy, nobody's going to be happy."

That's part of why he advises retailers against novelty songs -- easy on the grandmas getting run over by reindeers -- or anything repetitive.

"The one I have in mind is The 12 Days of Christmas," he said. "That would be horrible. Once I'm at the third day, I'm counting how many days are left. You don't want any songs that feel like they last for 12 days."



Does this really affect business? Maybe. Studies have suggested that playing Mozart and Vivaldi in a wine store could make people buy more expensive wine, and that slow tempo music in restaurants might make people linger longer and spend more.

It might come down to whether you enjoy it or not. People who enjoy music will evaluate merchandise as better, and sales people as friendlier.

Whether you're overjoyed or annoyed by Christmas music, we can help. Here's a guide to some store plans in 2017.

Oct. 22 Best Buy started rolling out holiday displays and mixing in Christmas music on Oct. 22.

Nov. 1 Sears and Kmart started, with an increase through Christmas. Michael's started half-holiday music, increasing to 100 percent on Black Friday. Also: Lane Bryant, Maurice's.

Nov. 5 Ulta started sprinkling it in beginning Nov. 5, increasing to 100 percent by Black Friday.

Nov. 9 Belk goes 25 percent holiday from Nov. 9-11, then increases to 75 percent from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10, then goes 100 percent Dec. 15 through Christmas. Also: H&M.

Nov. 11 Office Depot and Office Max.

Nov. 13 Walmart sprinkles in holiday music in regular stores, then a week later in Neighborhood Markets. They increase the ratio until it's 100 percent holiday music on Black Friday, then decrease it through Christmas, returning to normal the day after. Also: Dick's Sporting Goods.

Nov. 16 Verizon Wireless

Nov. 18 Staples starts, then gradually increases to 100 percent on Black Friday, then decreases to 50 to 75 percent holiday music until Dec. 18, then increases to 100 percent again until Christmas Day.

Mid-November Macy's, AT&T stores

Nov. 23 (Thanksgiving) J.C. Penney, Giant Eagle

Nov. 24 (Black Friday) Publix (and a spokesman will respond by saying they play "Christmas music" when you ask them about "holiday music.") Target has never played music in any stores at any time of year, but this year, 180 newly-remodeled stores are playing music for the first time, including holiday music startingBlack Friday. Also: Home Depot, Nordstrom, Whole Foods, Lowe's, Albertson's, Sprouts, Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Foot Locker.

Late November Petco

Dec. 1 Stater Bros. supermarkets

Stores that vary by franchisees' or manager's discretion Sherwin Williams, True Value, Ace Hardware, Kroger, 7-Eleven, Subway, Yum! Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell), Hy-Vee, Good Neighbor Pharmacy, Dunkin Donuts, Wegman's.

Companies that responded, but wouldn't reveal a date Starbucks, Apple, TJ Maxx, Ross, Ikea

Stores we found out never play any music, holiday or otherwise WinCo Foods, Costco, AutoZone, GameStop and the majority of Target stores


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