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My earliest memories of my late father include heading out to scoop up bargains on the day after Christmas. What, I wondered at the age of four, could be better than buying plastic reindeer and strings of fat multicolored bulbs for 50 percent off — 364 days before you'd ever want to use them?

Nothing, I concluded. It was fun, even exciting, a way to effectively extend the magic of the holiday just a little longer.

And now, through a flurry of ill-conceived marketing, the fun is over. Some Master Marketer who clearly lacked access to a calendar decided that After Christmas Sales would be even better before Christmas. And that triggered a rash of related, equally annoying decisions to accelerate sales of all kinds.

Black Friday on Thursday, anyone? How about Cyber Monday on Saturday? Why don't we just have sales all month long?

But that's not all. After the sales are accelerated, many of them are extended — so all those Cyber Monday specials are still out there on Thursday.

The End of Retail Prices

In a tragic, collective frenzy to grab a bigger share of finite consumer holiday dollars, marketers have created the equivalent of everyday low prices. And you don't have to look any farther than J.C. Penney to realize what a strategic misstep that can be.

It eliminates the one thing that really motivates consumers to spend: the conviction that bargains are fleeting — and that they'll pay more unless they make a purchase right now.

Consumers like to feel they're getting bargains: That the deal they are snapping up today is better than the one they'll be able to get tomorrow. Like those Christmas tchotchkes my dad wrestled into his cart so many years ago, most customers enjoy the sense of anticipation and exhilaration that comes from getting something they think they want for less than they think they should pay.

Short of the madness that characterizes the fistfights and hair pulling of grand opening specials and so-called doorbusters, this is a good thing for brands and companies. Most people love a bargain, almost as much as they love the thrill of the chase to get one.

Before you argue otherwise, consider what happened at J.C. Penney. (Or is that "jcp" -- the cooler, hipper lowercase name former CEO Ron Johnson tried to force down the throats of his skeptical customers?)

Where's the Clearance Rack?

The struggling department store chain alienated many of its long-term customers with a major overhaul of its traditionally staid stores, complete with dozens of designer collaborations -- à la Target -- and a rotating merchandise component "to keep things interesting."

It also did away with sales, coupons and, by and large, special prices.

Johnson, coasting on his success at Apple and Target, announced in early 2012 that he planned to transform J.C. Penney from tired to trendsetting. He revamped the store layouts, restructured the merchandise mix and introduced an innovative pricing strategy, which replaced the clearance racks, special discounts and limited-time coupons that consumers came to associate with the store to having everyday prices, month-long values and "best prices" on the first and third Fridays of every month.

In the press release, Johnson boasted that the changes would help the retailer to "deliver the best possible customer experience." But they didn't. Sales declined 25 percent last year, the stock price fell and J.C. Penney alienated its core customer base.

Early last year, Johnson was fired -- and Penney's issued a public apology. And guess what? The chain is still struggling. In fact, some reports suggest, Penney's may never fully recover from the damage Johnson did.

A Sale? Yawn

So back to the broader problem at hand — this hyperactive holiday marketing that no longer excites potential customers but bores them. And it's easy to see why. Endless sales and discounts that run together day after day, week after week muting the magic and making the whole shopping experience as bland as the hot sauce at Taco Bell.

Let's skip over the whole philosophical debate about how these 24/7 sales are ruining America, destroying families and exploiting minimum wage workers who are forced to eat turkey sandwiches in a questionably sanitary breakroom on Thanksgiving. That's a conversation for another day.

Instead, let's focus on the marketing and customer experience realities, which don't bode especially well for companies interested in their bottom lines. Consider this assortment of tidbits from all the analysis that has been done to date on Holiday Materialism 101 so far this year:

  • Thanksgiving Day promotions stole some of the deal chasing activity from Black Friday. Compared to last year, traffic declined 6.6 percent on Black Friday, driven by deep discounts beginning much earlier in the month and continuing after Black Friday. "It appears that some consumers felt less frantic about catching deals as they expect them to continue throughout the rest of the season," analysts at Euclid, a provider of in-store retail analytics, reported. IBM confirmed the findings, reporting that Thanksgiving Day online sales increased 14.3 percent over 2013, with Black Friday up 9.5 percent year-over-year. But average order value on Thanksgiving was $125.25, down 1.8 percent year-over-year, and the average order on Black Friday was $129.37, down 4.4 percent. "This trend may indicate that shoppers are becoming more comfortable and digitally savvy in how they use online coupons and rebates to secure the best bargains," according to the IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark, which is delivered to clients through the company’s Smarter Commerce initiative.Why buy now when the discounts could be even deeper next week?
  • Many online customers have devolved into window shoppers. According to new statistics published today by Barilliance, a company that provides website personalization, about 79 percent of mobile phone users abandoned their shopping cart during the Black Friday-Cyber Monday weekend. Why buy today what you can buy for the same price tomorrow?
  • Shopping is stressful — and those theoretical customer-centric, personalized — "delightful" — experiences are not as common as you may think. Engagor, a platform for real time customer engagement, social media monitoring and analytics, found the overall buzz about Cyber Monday and Black Friday retail sales was "surprisingly low." When customers did take to Twitter, they were likely to complain about websites crashing due to traffic overload (Macy’s and Kohl’s) as well as poor customer service both in stores (Sears, Best Buy, Macy’s) and on the phone (Wal-Mart). Why buy now when it's so frustrating and chaotic?
  • Customers have become so conditioned to sales and discounts that merchants are having a hard time converting them to regular customers. As Ben Rosenfield, CEO of Freebie, explained in a release, "Discounting comes at a cost. While there is no denying that consumers love saving money, some consumers only value the goods and services purchased on deal sites at the discount price." So what's a struggling merchant to do? "The best way to expose consumers to your products and services is to offer it for free," he contends. Why buy when you can get it for free?

Holiday Wish List

Maybe it's time for every marketer to step back, take a breath and put down the real or imagined Adderall and Ritalin — drugs some researchers conclude do not make you smarter, but simply make you think you're smart.

Stop taking the steam out of the concept of a sale. Stop acting like a bargain today is better than one tomorrow. Just stop … and put yourselves in the shoes of your customers.

You want to engage them, excite them, inspire them (and, let's be honest here, get them to spend?) Then start making your customers feel valued by actually offering then something of value: a real personalized promotion, a one-time opportunity, an authentic deal or discount — based not on their browsing habits but on an actual purchase or opt-in request. (Take a look at Söfft shoes, for instance: It offers a limited time, 40 percent discount if you sign up to receive email.)

Then, once you have a customer's attention, stop acting like over-eager puppies with insatiable desires to please. Take a cue from Zappos and give them something that will encourage repeat business (at any price) and build brand loyalty.

Treat them right.

Last summer, Vanessa DiMauro and Don Bulmer, research fellows with The Society for New Communications Research (SNCR), investigated the factors that inform, impact and shape trust, loyalty and preferences among digitally connected consumers. The findings reflect a number of surprising insights, informed by 927 survey respondents mostly from the US, with about 10 percent from the rest-of-world, with great distribution and balance across age and gender. You can read the full study here.

But here's the bottom line: Your success doesn't hinge on the lowest prices or the most aggressive discounts. The research confirms that a positive customer experience is the single most important factor in creating and sustaining customer loyalty.

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I can't say it any better that DiMauro and Bulmer, so I won't. I'll just share their words:

Once someone becomes a customer, positive customer experience is the leading indicator of whether the customer will become loyal to the company or brand – by a very wide margin. A positive customer experience is even more important than price in retaining the hearts and wallets of customers. This is especially important for companies to understand and support (as the chart above indicates) because how a customer is treated in the store, on the phone and online is more meaningful than the product offering or the overall reputation of the company."

I guess Aretha was right, after all. The one thing your customers want — and the secret of effective marketing? Just a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Title image by amy_buthod  (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.