On the Curious Science of Christmas Shopping

21 December 2012 by Victoria Charlton, posted in Behavioural Science, Christmas, Retail

It struck me yesterday, while battling my way around a jam-packed shopping centre in Essex, that anthropologists must really like Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I usually enjoy Christmas too. But for those scientists who get their kicks out of the study of humanity, the prospect of the annual festival of spending must be truly mouth-watering.

Because what I experienced yesterday – I find it quite traumatic to talk about – was nothing less than mass hysteria, brought about by a misguided attempt to cram as many people as possible into what is essentially a very expensive theme-park for grown-ups, before rigging up a giant sound system and playing Bing Crosby on loop. It reminded me a lot of A Clockwork Orange, but with more violence and much more tinsel.

This is all rather surprising, since we are, in fact, meant to be in the midst of a recession. Not so in Essex, however, where it seems that this year’s must-have present comes from an upmarket jewellery store, frequented, if you believe the advertising, by Girls Aloud. Indeed, the sight of several bewildered-looking husbands queuing politely outside said store, attempting to check their iPhones while juggling multiple shopping bags and, in the case of one poor soul, a child, was one of the few highlights of my trip.

Unfortunately, as I can now personally attest, Christmas shopping isn’t always this civilised. We Brits might lead the world in the subtle art of queuing, but God help the person who tries to cut in. And, at Christmas time, as my Nan once told me, it pays to have sharp elbows even in the posh department stores. In many ways, then, Christmas seems to epitomise all that is unpleasant about modern society, and, indeed, humankind itself. Take away the clothes and the luxury shopping bags, and what you’re left with sometimes displays a worrying resemblance to a pack of apes fighting over bananas.

Which presents us with a strange contradiction. Because Christmas, despite the frenzy of excessive (and in my case, at points, entirely random) present-buying, is meant to be a time for giving. It is a time for charity. For family. For smiling sweetly and pretending that you really did always want a lovingly-knitted Santa-themed toilet-roll cover. It’s not meant to be a time for running up huge credit-card bills in order to buy mass-produced tat that our friends and family neither want nor need.

So how exactly did we get into this mess?

According to one theory, the emphasis that we today place on “emotionally charged gift-giving” first emerged in the nineteenth century, when growing industrialisation led to the domestic realm taking on new significance as a place of escape from the harsh realities of the workplace1. Under this hypothesis, Charles Dickens – not to mention The Muppets – must shoulder some of the blame for today’s traditions, with the idealised vision of lunch with the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol apparently holding a lot of stock with the Victorians. (Personally, I’m almost certain that Dickens did genuinely imagine Tiny Tim to be a frog. It just works too well to be a coincidence.)

However, as our gifts have become increasingly mass-produced and, well, meaningless really, we have had to work harder to “scrub them clean of the contamination caused by their association with money”1. One method of “decontamination” is to remove labels and price-tags and wrap the gift in decorative paper, thereby re-personalising an object that is, by its very nature, impersonal. (My own theory is that we also use wrapping to “re-contaminate” presents that in fact have very little association with money. During my most financially challenging times at university, I was renowned in my family for presenting them with beautifully decorated but undeniably cheap presents. I suspect they might (mistakenly) get quite excited when they see the shoddy state of this year’s batch.)

So, there seems to be some basis for the idea that the giving of personalised gifts in a cosy domestic environment might strengthen relationships and generally get us in the mood for spreading peace to all mankind. But this seems to bear little in common with the credit-card swiping madness that I witnessed, and, indeed, participated in, yesterday. So what on earth comes over us all when we go Christmas shopping?

The answer is a version of what I like to call it the Annoy & Fluster effect – the A&F effect for short.  Take, for example, a popular American retailer, best-known for its “preppy, youthful, All-American” style of casual clothing. On first entering the store, you could be forgiven for thinking that you had mistakenly stumbled into a nightclub – the type of cool, sexy establishment that makes you feel under-dressed. The music is pumping, there are beautiful people everywhere and it’s too dark to actually see the clothes. You feel irritated, harried, yet strangely intoxicated. There’s a pungent scent in the air that for some reason brings back memories of cheap aftershave and under-age drinking. (Or maybe that’s just me.) The impact of all this – known in the trade as “retail atmospherics” – is to turn normally rational people into crazed automatons, completely incapable of simply purchasing the item that they came in to buy. Personally, this manifests in an overwhelming desire to own a polo shirt in EVERY POSSIBLE COLOUR, mostly, I think, because of the pleasing way that they’ve been arranged on the shelves – like a beautiful mass-produced rainbow.

And science says that I’m not the only one to react like this. A meta-analysis investigating the impact of retail atmospherics concluded that “there is enough evidence to be able to clearly state that the atmosphere has an effect on consumer spending and that variations of atmospheric variables affect the amount of money people spend and the number of items they purchase”2. Too right. And if yesterday’s experience is anything to go by, there are some serious atmospherics at play at Yule time.

But can putting “Jingle Bell Rock” on repeat and scattering a bit of orange peel around really boost sales? Well, yes, apparently it can. A 2005 study investigating the effects of Christmassy scents and festive music on shoppers’ attitudes found that the two, when used in combination, could make potential customers feel decidedly more warm and fuzzy about their shopping experience3. More recently, research published this month by Royal Holloway suggests – somewhat sinisterly – that festive jingles are routinely used by retailers to “manipulate your shopping habits in a way that you might barely be aware of”. By forcing you to buy the new X-factor single perhaps.

Putting all this aside, however, last time I checked we did all still possess some modicum of free will. Retailers might be working particularly hard this year to tempt us into spending a little more than we ought to, but you can hardly blame them. Times are tough, and a CD of Classic Christmas Hits and a few squirts of air freshener are a lot cheaper than a nationwide advertising campaign. But it might be a good time to start thinking twice before making that impulse purchase, and remembering that when it comes to Christmas, Bob Cratchit and family probably had the right idea.

And take my advice – steer clear of Essex on Boxing Day.


  1. Highfield, R., (2003). Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas. Phoenix: London.
  2. Turley, L. W. and Milliman, R. E., (2000). “Atmospheric effects on shopping behaviour: A review of the experimental evidence”, Journal of Business Research, 49(2):193-211.
  3. Spangenberg, E. R., Grohmann, B. and Sprott, D. E., (2005). “It’s beginning to smell (and sound) a lot like Christmas: the interactive effects of ambient scent and music in a retail setting”, Journal of Business Research, 58(11):1583-1589.

4 Responses to “On the Curious Science of Christmas Shopping”

  1. Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

    Thanks, very interesting and entertaining.

    Buying something because one feels that one must do so can be a pretty bad experience; even more so if everyone else has the same idea. Did you mention free will somewhere?

    Fortunately I reached an agreement with others that we will buy gifts spontaneously when we feel like it and see something we think the other may like. As a consequence, my place is full of butterflies.

    In Japan, generally speaking, the wrapping is actually considered as an essential part of the gift, therefore it must look expensive; but then, people will tend to put the gift aside after expressing their gratitude and not open it before their guests leave, because this is considered a sign of greed.

  2. Pat Charlton Reply | Permalink

    Nice to know you inheritated my attitude to shopping - I will await opening my present on Christmas day with interest !

  3. Trish Reply | Permalink

    How I enjoyed your colourful description of Christmas madness. It reminds us that we are not really in control of our lives....we have to follow the other sheep in the pen. Happily, things are a bit different here in the Pyrenees mainly because shopping is not so straight forward and choices are limited. We don't feel obliged to "do even better than last year" or to spend so much because "the recipient will spend the same on you and it would be embarrassing to spend less." Little homemade goodies are well received and given with love. Things are "a few years behind the times here, but the meaning of Christmas giving is not lost and best of all......no stress!

  4. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    I, for one, am now totally not guilty that I don't actively do any Christmas shopping any more. Fantastic read.

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