Lesson for the holidays

Julianne Malveaux | 11/7/2014, 6 a.m.
Did you notice that some stores are already touting Christmas sales?

Did you notice that some stores are already touting Christmas sales?  They are encouraging people to start buying for Christmas now.  We’ve been experiencing this “Christmas creep” for years, although we might not want to call it “Christmas creep” because there is no Christ or Christianity in the profligate spending that accompanies a season that should be defined by gratitude and reflection.  The birth of the Christ Child should symbolize rebirth, the symbolism of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, a signal to African-American community building and spirituality.

Part of the reason for the Christmas creep is the fact that fourth quarter spending can make or break annual sales for retailers.  Lots of consumer electronics, jewelry and even automobiles are disproportionately purchased during these fourth quarter months, although in the past this heavy spending was reserved for December.  Not only will fourth quarter spending influence annual profits, but it also will signal the strength of the economic recovery that only a few are experiencing.  If high-end retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus see their sales boost while low end retailers see their sales grow only modestly, that might be an indication that recovery is not trickling down. For all the talk of the end of the Great Recession, the fact that incomes have remained flat means recovery will remain slow.

During the third quarter of this year, spending was more sluggish than expected, so much so that some retailers are adjusting their spending forecasts downward. Some might even have less inventory on hand so that prices might rise a bit from demand.  When toy retailers, for example, have shortages in this year’s popular toy, parents are likely to make return trips to a store both to check on the coveted toy and to buy “just one more thing” for children.  And despite sluggish spending, the post-Thanksgiving Day stampedes are not a thing of the past when they are properly marketed.

This heavy Christmas marketing has a special impact on African-American consumers, many of whom have less income, more debt and a likelihood of overspending during holidays because “stuff” means “love” for some. The Christmas creep gives youngsters more time to whine and cajole for “stuff” and places parents under more pressure to spend. While the spending may help stimulate the economy, it will depress the financial standing of those who participate in the spending game.

We live in a nation of consumers, but African-Americans are the ones who can least afford to play this game.  One in eight has nothing — no savings, no investments, no tangible belongings such as automobiles, for example. Fewer than half own their homes, compared to 70 percent of white people. Homeownership is the primary path to wealth accumulation for the middle class. About half have “bad” debt, or credit card debt.  Few have saved for future tuition payments or retirement. Yet some of these folks will queue up to spend money, all in the name of a Christmas shopping season that starts in October.

The holiday season is a good time to convey a series of economic and community-building messages to African-Americans. First, can you afford the holiday spending? Second, if you must shop, do some of your spending with black-owned businesses. African-Americans spend less than a 10th of their income with black-owned businesses. Doubling the level of spending would increase the number of jobs that can be generated within the African-American community.

Third, it ought to go without saying, but don’t pay full price for anything, especially at the end of the year. There are sales galore.

Fourth, you can build community and affinity by giving someone the gift of a contribution to his or her favorite charity, a church building fund, a sorority or fraternity capital campaign or a scholarship fund. Fifth, use your 2014 holiday spending as a way to develop a budget for the 2015 holiday season.

Christmas at Halloween?  If you buy into the spending game, you will get tricked and predatory retailers treated by your behavior.

Julianne Malveaux is an economist and author based in Washington.