Once upon a time, morsels of milk chocolate hidden behind small numbered cardboard doors were enough to get people through the days leading up to Christmas. Go back a few decades and advent calendars filled with nothing but holy messages were enough to remind people of the religious meaning of the festive period.
But today, advent calendars have taken on a bizarre luxury life of their own. They feature blocks of Applewood and Jarlsberg, assortments of gin, pork scratchings, beauty and cosmetic gifts, wellness products, fitness-conscious protein snacks, stationary, socks and sex toys – the list goes on and on – filling homes with a different sort of Christmas joy.
According to Vogue, beauty advent calendars alone helped to grow some retailers’ sales figures by up to 20 per cent last year. But mass commercialisation of Christmas aside, what’s driving the demand for this alternative advent calendar craze?
For some people, it could all be down to Christmas nostalgia, and wanting to return to the more carefree days of our youth.
“Advent calendars have historically been mostly intended for children, however with ever increasing stress levels as well as popularity of mindfulness and wellbeing activities, we start to embrace our inner child more,” says Kate Nightingale, founder of consultancy firm Style Psychology. “We feel more indulgent with childhood related purchases and tend to be more impulsive in such purchase decisions. Plus, every gift creates that kick of dopamine which is very addictive.”
The range of options for advent calendars has ballooned in recent years as retailers and brands try to cash in on the craze. Debenhams, for example, has increased its range of advent calendars to a whopping 50 this Christmas, with beauty products, gin, hot sauce and calendars for pets all featuring in its suite of surprises.
According to the retailer, its customers spent £3 million on advent calendars in the last year alone, with premium calendars accounting for two-thirds of all sales.
Joining the increasingly oddball range this year is a calendar from PG Tips, which is filled with 48 bags of tea and costs £7, considerably more than a box of tea and featuring a lot more packaging. Primark has also joined the craze with a Disney-themed calendar stuffed with baubles (£10) while Irn-Bru is flogging a 24-can advent calendar.
“Nobody’s actually substituting this for a Christmas present, so it’s a way of exploiting a longer lead around Christmas,” says Caroline Wiertz, professor of marketing and associate dean for entrepreneurship at Cass Business School. “It’s being used by both retailers and brands as an opportunity to sell more things, and an opportunity to have a bit of a PR piece and highlight the brand, because they’re often very pretty and nicely packaged.”
Having a bite size taster of the larger product is not just a good branding move – it could lead to more customers buying the product outside of the festive season.
Take Lovehoney’s ‘Best Sex of Your Life Couple’s Sex Toy’ advent calendar, for example. The calendar has been sold since 2017 “This year’s calendar sold out in record time and is [the company’s] best-selling ever,” says Bonny Hall, the company’s product director.
And despite the success of some novelty calendars, most of the top sellers are from beauty brands. According to YouGov, 49 per cent of Britons have purchased an advent calendar this year, with 13 per cent of opting for a beauty product calendar instead of one filled with chocolates.
A lot of them sport hefty price tags, from Jo Malone’s £300 advent calendar and Dior’s £340 one to Diptyque’s £320 calendar and Dr Barbara Sturm’s, which costs a monstrous £405. But savvy shoppers are buying them, not because of the excitement of opening a new door every day in the lead up to Christmas, but because of the big savings they offer.
“Despite the high upfront cost, advent calendars can be seen as offering a saving compared to if shoppers were to buy each of the products contained individually,” says Jack Duckett, associate director of consumer lifestyles research at Mintel. “This is particularly the case for beauty and personal care calendars, which have become increasingly popular due to the often significant savings they can offer.”
Some advent calendars are even more extravagant. This year, Beaverbrooks jewellers released a £100,000 diamond-a-day advent calendar to celebrate its centenary. Behind each door are luxury watches and jewellery worth £123,770.
Wiertz sees the irony in Beaverbrooks’ advent calendar. “It’s a countdown to the birth of Jesus if you want to be very technical about it, and it should be a period when you think of others and their happiness,” she says. “I’m not entirely sure it fits with a £100,000 Christmas calendar. Initially they were meant for children. And now it’s for adults. And it’s a lot of adults making a gift to themselves, which is an interesting development.”
Still, while many brands have begun using alternative advent calendars as a way to squeeze as much money out of Christmas as possible, for one of the brands that helped kick-start the craze, the motivation was more organic.
The world’s first cheese advent calendar from So Wrong It’s Nom, was Asda’s bestselling in 2018. And it came about when founder Annem Hobson realised that nobody had else had thought of it. Since it hit shelves in 2017, many brands have created their own versions, including Aldi, and M&S, which released a £15 cheese advent calendar that features a giant cheesy Santa on the final day.
“The weather is horrible, it’s cold, it’s icy, and if an alternative advent calendar can put a smile on your face and make you laugh, then that’s a really wonderful thing,” says Hobson.
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