I take personal responsibility and credit for creating the tag line “Happy Holidays” and being the first to use it successfully in a retail marketing and advertising campaign. (Actually, I cannot be certain of that, but I might as well take credit for it, as we were certainly early users and it became ubiquitous after that.) This is the real story of how the use of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” came about for advertising during the November/December period in retail stores.
It happened during the 1970s, when I was working for a department store in San Francisco. We had several stores in and around the Bay Area, including Oakland. My job at that time was buyer of men’s socks, underwear, and bathrobes. This was a big Christmas-holiday department. During those two months, we did more than 50 percent of the total year’s sales volume, and practically all of the year’s profit. Every month throughout the year, the buyers, myself included, would meet with the advertising department and discuss the upcoming month’s advertising strategies. We would kick around ideas about the products, whether they should be on sale or not, and, most importantly, what the “hook” or “handle” or “tag line” of the advertising would be. This is like the headline for the ad, the message that would cause people to come in and buy our stuff. For example, in June the headline or tag line was often “Dads and Grads,” in order to tie together Father’s Day and school graduations.
But November/December was the most important time of the year. And at that time, during the 1970s, Kwanzaa—a kind of harvest festival—was a new holiday (new to us, anyway) that was becoming important to many people in our market area. Part of the celebration involves buying and giving presents. And as you might well imagine, a new holiday involving the buying and giving of presents is a welcome thing for all retailers.
But it presented a challenge. Now we not only had Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and the Islamic holiday of Milad un Nabi in the November/December time period, we also had Kwanzaa. Each of these holidays was (and still is) important, but we did not want to run separate overlapping ads for each one. What we needed was a “hook” or “handle” to tie them all together, somehow.
When you really understand and internalize the Law of “People First,” make it a part of your life, and apply it universally to customers and employees, then the right solutions to challenges and actions become clear.
So I said, “Look, we want everyone to buy our socks and underwear for whatever holiday they celebrate. It doesn’t matter which one it is. We do not want to leave anyone out, no matter what. The message should be that they are all welcome to drop their money in our store! How about we just say ‘Happy Holidays’? That phrase covers all of the holidays, and whatever holiday customers and employees celebrate—or even if they don’t celebrate anything.”
So the use of “Happy Holidays” by retailers during the November/December selling period has nothing to do with any political or religious agenda, or any other such intent. It came about as a retail business strategy that was totally driven by the goal of selling more socks and underwear to everyone—and by an inclusive and positive sense of community, and putting People First.
Excerpted from The Five Laws of Retail: How the Most Successful Businesses Have Mastered Them and How You Should Too. Grab a copy here.