How to Shop without the Hassle: James Crabtree and William Davies Find Online Retailers Transforming the Spirit of Christmas. (New Media Awards)

Article excerpt

Something strange is happening to Christmas. Usually, it's the time when advertisers remind us to adore the company of our family and welcome all comers into our home. Christmas is sold as a season of selflessness and goodwill. But this year, with a collective "bah humbug", the branding agents have decided that December is becoming a time of stress, queues and disasters waiting to happen. This rebranding is symptomatic of something starting to change; that something could just be the belated impact of c-commerce.

Amazon is responsible. Its omnipresent Christmas ad campaign tries to position the internet company as the real Santa Claus, with delivery vans as sleighs and modems replacing chimneys. These ads show a shopping experience rich with frustration, and complete with crowd scenes straight out of Empire of the Sun. Why risk venturing out, they suggest, when you can safely hunker down at the computer? Sainsbury's online shopping is in on the act, too. The store offers to "take care of Christmas" -- a responsibility it clearly believes its customers no longer want. Hide indoors, these companies now tell us, and don't venture out until the whole ghastly thing is over.

Christmas can indeed herald higher-than-average suicide rates and soaring consumer debt. But, previously, marketing strategists had little choice but sleight of hand. Consumers had to be dragged to hellishly busy high streets: therefore, Christmas had to be a public experience of fun and family. London's shared celebration became as much about the Selfridge's Christmas window displays as it was about the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree. But internet shopping can begin to break this link between consumption and public space, allowing the latter to be described with renewed honesty. Online advertisers are now asking us to admit that we secretly hated Cliff Richard all along.

This represents an important break-through for closet Christmas-phobes, but an even more important one for e-commerce. In a post-mortem on previous internet Christmas sales figures, the E-commerce Times highlighted a failure to re-create the traditional Christmas experience: "Unfortunately for Amazon -- and all of e-commerce -- [their] efforts are falling short. In fact, all they show is exactly how limited e-tailers are in their ability to duplicate the lights, songs and shopping ambience of the holidays."

In short, no matter how clever your website, it can't smell of roasting chestnuts. So, the only answer is to change the way we think about the festivities themselves. Marketers have understood for a while now that e-commerce succeeds in areas where people need to make repeat purchases; but only this year have they worked out that nothing involves more repetition or more purchasing than another sodding Christmas. …