Scary Good or Just Plain Scary

If there were an Olympics of shopping, the US would win hands down. This year, American shoppers will spend in excess of $4.6 trillion dollars on stuff, which equates to somewhere north of 25% of GDP (some estimates put the figure higher). The Brits by comparison lag behind with about 20% of GDP apportioned to retail. And my countrymen – the Australians – are positively mean, with retail at around 17% of GDP. (In China, out of interest, retail sits at about 12% of GDP. But it is fast increasing as the Chinese government shifts its focus from exporting goods to domestic consumption.)

You can argue the specific stats, but the premise holds firm. Americans know a thing or two about shopping and wield their wallets like weapons. When you live here (as I have done since April this year after relocating from Sydney), you realize just how much that retail is woven into the fabric of daily existence.

It’s not just the omnipresence and sheer weight of retail – the number of outlets, the size of stores, the volume and variety on display, the extended trading hours. It’s not only the enthusiasm with which Americans embrace every possible retail channel – such as Amazon Prime, the service of which almost one in five US households are now members, according to Kantar Retail. And it’s not purely the high standards of US retail in areas such as visual merchandising, or the commission-fueled salesmanship.

What I have found most interesting is the relentlessly regular and professional cycle of events and the way in which retailers and shoppers alike embrace each new celebration. Nowhere is this more evident in the New York area than in the change of seasons.

Post Labor Day (the first Monday in September), a switch was flicked and the US went from summer to fall. Overnight, the new theme was autumn colors and pumpkins, pumpkins and more pumpkins. Besides the vegetable itself, there was pumpkin pie, pumpkin yogurt, pumpkin waffle mix, pumpkin granola bars (my favorite is the Trader Joes-named “This Pumpkin Walks Into a Bar…”), Starbucks’ PSL (Pumpkin Spice Latte) and in my local Wholefoods, ginormous displays of pumpkin beer.

Customers got into the spirit as much as retailers. In my town, the visual merchandising displays extended to the average homeowner. Houses everywhere had autumn wreaths tacked to their front doors and front steps decorated with pumpkins. So the average Joe became part of the show. And many of these guys could get a job doing displays at Anthropologie.

As of October 1st, the ante was upped with a Halloween overlay. Delicious pumpkins became scary pumpkins. Homeowners hung up skeletons with rattling bones. Cheetos brought out a special “Bag Of Bones” snack. And pet stores have gotten into the act. At Petco, you can now pick up a Halloween Pumpkin Dog Costume (buy it and you really should be reported to an animal cruelty organization), or the relatively tasteful Halloween Multi-Color Skull Dog Bandana. You can also treat your pooch with Petco Bootique Witch’s Spell Dog Cookies.

Depending on your perspective, it’s all either scary good or just plain scary.

When it comes to retail events and promotions in the US, it’s a case of “go big or go home”. And when you do go home, you will no doubt be taking some of that $4.6 trillion dollars of stuff with you.