Before we get too close to Christmas I thought it might be SMART to remind myself (and anyone else who is paying attention) to not get sucked into the holiday frenzy. You know what I mean. Ever since the beginning of September the retail outlets here in the U.S. have been pushing Santa and all things related. Just like any drug, the pushers make everything seem so harmless, tantalizing and attractive. However, the truth is what makes the season special has very little to do with stuff, and everything to do with experience. That’s why remembering why we do what we do and using our money, time and resources in the service of that which we say we support, is especially critical this time of year.
And make no mistake—this time of year it doesn’t matter what religion you practice, if at all. In fact, the only God most retailers are pushing this season is the almighty dollar, or the supreme euro, or—you get the idea. In fact, after reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg I now have plenty of evidence that all big retailers are doing everything they can to convince us to spend our money regardless of whether it is good for us or fits our values. Instead we must constantly remember that they are using our habits to convince us that buying things is the solution to our happiness and wellbeing. And Christmas is just a very convenient holiday to help them accomplish that.
A great example was the chapter in The Power of Habit written about Target Stores and how they “target” expectant mothers to buy their products. With the information they are able to gather on us, a big retailer like Target can track our purchases. Using information from our credit cards purchases, our store customer cards, and online information resources like Facebook and Amazon they do it constantly. Big retailers know what we like and what we buy, often more than we do.
According to Duhigg, once Target determined that expectant mothers were a retail goldmine, they spent a pile of money figuring out which women were pregnant and how far along. Once they could do that, they were able to send very specific advertising pieces that targeted those women’s buying needs. Of course Target didn’t let the women know they knew. They learned that most of us don’t like to think that retail stores know something overly personal about us. But retailers do know—and they use it to both predict and manipulate our spending habits.
Another piece of information in The Power of Habit is how store placement manipulates our purchases. Studies show that people traditionally turn to the right upon entering a store, so most retailers put their most expensive and profitable items right there where they can easily be spotted. They also know that even if a person shops with a list, Duhigg says, “…despite those lists, more than 50% of purchasing decisions occurred at the moment a customer saw a product on the shelf.” And what about those large fruit and vegetable sections in most grocery stores? Grocers have learned that when buyers buy a reasonable amount of healthy food to begin with, it makes it easier for them psychologically to then buy ice cream or snacks for themselves and their families. And don’t forget the music. Studies show that when music from Spain is playing in the background, wine sales on Spanish wine pick up. When music from Italy plays, Italian wines do better. According to University of Southern California psychologists, “Consumers sometimes act like creatures of habit, automatically repeating past behavior with little regard to current goals.”
Now I don’t like to think I am ever a creature of habit, but if you’ve been in any retail outlet in the last couple of months then we’ve all been trained and manipulated to start thinking about Christmas. I’m as guilty as anyone. Even though for the last five to ten years I have been consciously practicing an alternative approach to the holidays, I find myself being sucked into the frenzy. A couple of weeks ago I was in a store and saw a cute little palm tree with white twinkle lights. I spent a couple of minutes looking at the boxes and imagining whether it would work as our Christmas tree for the year. When I came home and told Thom (my husband) about it, he said, “What? A plastic tree constructed from petroleum products and manufactured in China by poverty-level workers? And you want to stick that in our eco-house, why?” He was right! That tree represents everything I am against and yet all I was thinking about was how cute and festive it would look with presents wrapped around it.
Of course the over-indulgence of the holiday just starts with decorations. The real money to be made and spent is convincing us all that we need to buy expensive and unique gifts for every single person we know. Why? Do we really think they will love us more? If you watch television, listen to radio or read magazines or newspapers we are all being directed and entrained toward seeing, wanting and then hopefully buying as much as we can during the next month or so. Advertisers use the lights, the music and of course the gorgeous models holding every conceivable gift possible as enticements. You’d have to be a robot not to be attracted to it all.
And that is where the real test lies. Those of us in the U.S. are all being subjected to a heavy dosage of advertising drugs each and every day—and it won’t let up until after the holidays. The retailers are pushing purchases on us in every way imaginable—and most people are unconscious to the entire process. Unfortunately, many of the people who can least afford the drug, are often most captive to the need. Until we admit that shopping is a drug and advertising is manipulation, we are all vulnerable.
In case you are wondering, I love the holidays. I love to celebrate the “season” and experience all the good it has to offer. But something that my age, experience and consciousness has taught me, is that what makes Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Kwanza, or the Winter Solstice, or even just Santa special—is me. It’s what I’m thinking, believing and experiencing inside me. It is the people I choose to be with and share with. It’s all about the meaning I give it.
So I’m not suggesting that we not celebrate the holidays. There are some loving, wonderful and amazing aspects surrounding this time of year that deserves our recognition and celebration. What I am saying, especially to myself, is never forget what I value and believe is important, and to live those values regardless of what others say I should do. I believe that it is vital to keep our lives focused on that which brings us great joy, good health, loving relationships and meaning. Buying a bunch of “stuff” for others that they may or may not even really want, shouldn’t even be on the list.
So what can we do? Most importantly, surround yourself with people who are also awake, aware and conscious to holiday manipulation. Then if you choose to celebrate, figure out new and more creative ways to show people you love that you love them in ways that has nothing to do with money. Don’t spend money you don’t have. Remember that every retail store and business will do whatever they can to get you to buy something—regardless of whether you need it or not.
Keep your focus on the experience and meaning of the holiday—whatever that means to you. Create activities and experiences to enjoy and share with those you love. Living SMART 365 reminds me that even when it is Christmas I want to live a life that is sustainable, meaningful, artful, responsible and thankful. This holiday season I am determined to stay conscious and aware and only put my money towards that which helps me live my intentions. What about you?
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joshbousel/