Byline: Lisa Lockwood / Holly Haber, Dallas / Georgia Lee, Atlanta

NEW YORK — December promises a concentrated frenzy of advertising activity this year, with five fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, including one less weekend.
On the national front, a healthy economy is expected to free consumer dollars and keep markdown activity somewhat contained, while regionally, Bloomingdale’s aggressive entry into California will heat up competitive spending there.
A spot check of major retailers found that ad budgets are up and stores do not expect pre-Christmas advertising to be any more promotional than a year ago, despite the shorter shopping period.
To keep pace with the calendar, stores will pump up their print and TV advertising, mail bigger holiday catalogs and try new gimmicks to draw customers in earlier and often. These range from a “Gifts to Dream Of” catalog from Saks Fifth Avenue that will hit homes the day after Thanksgiving, to a “Wrap it up Early” sale at Sears, Roebuck & Co. that kicks off the weekend before Thanksgiving, and a new “pre-paid charge card” from Barneys New York.
Sheri Wilson-Gray, senior vice president, marketing at Saks Fifth Avenue, said she expects the pre-Christmas season to be about as promotional as last year, but notes, “post-Christmas will be more promotional…On a key market basis, advertising spending is up 20 percent,” she added.
“What we’ve done is focus on product to help the customer with gift suggestions,” said Wilson-Gray. Saks’ “Gifts to Dream Of” catalog is more than double the size of last year’s and will feature 75 products, versus 20 to 25 last year.
“Last year’s was very precious and tony,” said Wilson-Gray. “Now the price points are more accessible, and we present a lot more products that are available broadly in almost all 50 stores.”
There will also be signs in the store relating to products in the catalog and special pre-wrapped gifts on tables.
Turning to California, where Bloomingdale’s has changed the complexion of the market, planning to open two stores this week and two next week, Wilson-Gray noted, “Bloomingdale’s will add a lot of heat to the [L.A.] marketplace with their spending in major broadcast, TV and print. They have critical mass there, and for the amount of volume they want to do, they need to hit a broad customer target and create trial.”
For its own part, Saks has dramatically increased its radio buy in the L.A. market this year. The retailer has a campaign currently airing called “A legendary store for a legendary town” that runs through Christmas. The store will also advertise in the Los Angeles Times and Beverly Hills 213.
In New York, Saks’ Christmas advertising will take a melange format, with a lot more products highlighted in each individual ad, such as luxe gifts for her and luxe gifts for him.
Despite its Chapter 11 status, Barneys New York plans to increase its Christmas ad budget by 20 percent. Barneys will change its “Rule Your Rat Pack” logo to “Rule Your Yule” for the holiday season.
“We are making an increased commitment to support early spring receipts,” said Simon Doonan, executive vice president, creative services at Barneys. In women’s apparel, Barneys bought a lot of spring merchandise for December deliveries, including Jil Sander, Giorgio Armani, Issey Miyake and Dries Van Noten. “It’s a very conscious strategy that’s supported by marketing,” said Doonan.
The “Rule Your Yule” campaign will focus on three distinct businesses: gifts, sale and early spring receipts.
Barneys will use newspaper ads, taxi tops and, for the first time, has developed a gift card. It will issue a “pre-paid charge card,” where the recipient can have her purchases deducted from the card. “We’re calling it ‘the ultimate gift for difficult people,”‘ said Doonan.
“It’s our version of a gift certificate,” added a Barneys spokesman. “It makes it easier within the store, so they don’t have to give back change, and the customer gets a credit and has to come back,” the spokesman said.
Barneys’ ace has always been its highly creative Christmas windows, and that will continue. The Madison Avenue windows will be unveiled around Nov. 15 and the downtown windows will be ready by Nov. 19 or Nov. 20. The Los Angeles windows will be unveiled Nov. 18 or Nov. 19, said Doonan.
“We’re going back to celebrity-oriented Christmas windows,” said Doonan. “They’ll be done less kitsch and camp, and more somber, intense and art-oriented. I, and we as a company, don’t feel particularly kitsch.”
“Most of the efforts we’re going to be making for November/December, especially with the shorter season, is more store-oriented, such as visual presentation and customer service,” said Ed Carroll, executive vice president, sales, promotion and marketing at Carson Pirie Scott, the 57-unit retailer based in Chicago.
Carroll said Carson’s advertising will be “a mixture of promotional and overall branding of the store.” The retailer expects to accelerate its TV campaign, and overall, its ad budget will be up 4 to 5 percent.
Carroll called Carson’s a “promotional department store,” which will be having sales almost every week from now until Christmas. He noted that Veterans Day “will be fairly big and then the pace picks up.”
Carroll believes that the shorter selling season “is a better period for retailers.” He said, “With economic factors, customers have money to spend, and there’s quite a bit of optimism and enthusiasm in the election year. They’ll spend the money but in a shorter period of time.”
He believes customers will surely spend more money than last year.
Carson’s TV campaign will carry the theme, “It’s my favorite time of year,” and the spots will look at key categories of business and brand names. The 30-second spots will run all through December.
With the shorter selling period, Sears, Roebuck & Co. is encouraging its customers to shop early with its “Wrap it up early sale” that begins the third weekend in November. “Items are on sale throughout the store to encourage shoppers to come in early,” said a Sears spokeswoman. Sears’ holiday season isn’t expected to be more promotional than a year ago, and the advertising expenditures are about the same as last year, with fewer days. “On a day-per-day basis, we’ll be spending more per day,” she pointed out.
“We did very well last year and expected an excellent holiday season,” she said.
Sears is sponsoring “Home Alone,” which will air Thanksgiving night, and “Home Alone 2,” which will be broadcast Dec. 8. Sears’ TV campaign will carry the theme, “Come See the Merry Side of Sears.” It begins the week of Thanksgiving.
“We foresee solid sales increases, exceeding industry expectations, which are currently averaging in the mid-single digits,” added the spokeswoman.
Mercantile Stores Inc. has increased its Christmas marketing/advertising budget 10 to 15 percent, primarily for a TV campaign that focuses on image, rather than sales.
“We think consumers will be bombarded with loud messages, so we’re taking the opposite direction,” said Michael DeStefano, vice president, marketing. “Our message is an old-fashioned, almost Norman Rockwell Christmas designed to make people comfortable and take the stress out of shopping.”
The TV campaign, which runs Nov. 23 — Dec. 23, emphasizes brands and store loyalty, with themes that will be carried out through in-store visuals.
The shortened holiday season hasn’t affected marketing plans at Neiman Marcus..
“My feeling is that people are going to buy a gift whether they have four or five weeks to do it,” asserted Steven Kornajcik, senior vice president of creative services. “Neiman Marcus isn’t a promotional retailer that is trying to drive traffic with one-day sales and promotional events.”
A key tool for Neiman’s is the December issue of its monthly “magalog,” The Book, which drops next week. Its 160 pages highlight classic luxury gifts, including fine and fashion jewelry, watches, bridge clothing, fragrances, handbags and tabletop items.
The retailer will begin its ad blitz after Thanksgiving with newspaper, radio and television advertising in all markets where it has stores. Its budget is comparable to last year’s, Kornajcik said.
This season’s TV campaign depicts live models and actual products, and TV and radio spots feature original music and lyrics performed by Bobby Short.