Consumer

Shelly Banjo is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering retail and consumer goods. She previously was a reporter at Quartz and the Wall Street Journal.

Amazon Prime Day, the made-up shopping holiday meant to lure new members to the online retailer's loyalty club, got all the headlines and tweets on Tuesday. But don't forget it was also National Pecan Pie Day, Eat Your Jello Day, Paper Bag Day, and Simplicity Day (celebrating the birth of philosopher David Thoreau, who advocated for a life of simplicity). 

Why isn't Jello-maker Kraft Heinz using this hallowed day as an excuse to hawk Jello? (Not even a tweet!?) Why isn't pecan hawker Diamond Foods trumpeting Pecan Pie Day?

Sure, these are ridiculous, make-believe, commercial holidays -- but then again so is Amazon Prime Day, a tradition stretching back all of one year. And so are Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Mother's Day, Father's Day ... the list goes on and on. 

Joking aside, these shopping holidays work. Prime Day (along with other perks and relentless promotion) helped Amazon add 19 million Prime members in the past year, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. 

Likewise, Alibaba said last year its Singles' Day promotions brought in $14.3 billion in sales. That's up from $9.3 billion in 2014 and barely anything before 2009, when Alibaba started leveraging the day, a practice later copied by rivals. (Folklore holds the holiday was invented by students in the 1990s as a sort of Valentines Day for bachelors and spinsters.) 

Holiday Helper
Commercializing a made-up holiday worked for Alibaba
Source: Bloomberg Intelligence, Alibaba
Total gross merchandise value represents the value of goods settled through Alibaba's retail marketplaces

Consumer, food and retail companies are struggling to drive sales. As you can see in the chart below, North American customer traffic has been falling basically every month for years. Why not grasp at any reason to get customers to come into your retail chain? It's no longer enough to just build a department store and hope it lures folks to the mall. 

Traffic Jam
Customer traffic has declined nearly every month since 2013
Source: Bloomberg, Prodco

Smart sellers are finding new ways to get people excited about their stores: Restaurants, hotels, and outlet malls are rapidly building Tesla charging stations on their properties, hoping to attract the big spenders that drive the cars to spend time -- and money -- with them while they charge up. Retailers and restaurants are grabbing real money from customers streaming through as they play Nintendo's virtual-reality Pokemon game

Traditional holidays are still important to U.S. retailers -- they generated $626 billion in sales last year -- notes Kantar Retail analyst Sara Al-Tukhaim. But holiday sales increased by only 3 percent from the year before, meaning retailers are going to have to get more creative to spur growth. 

Creating fake holidays is one way to do it. Another is importing traditions from other countries, just as Canada, England, China, and more have embraced versions of Black Friday.

And as America grows more diverse -- the multiracial U.S. population is growing three times as fast as the overall population -- retailers will benefit from embracing more-diverse holidays, such as Diwali, Ramadan, and the Chinese New Year. 

As Gadfly has pointed out, American consumers want to shop, they just need increasingly more compelling reasons to do so. Few things get them in the mood like a holiday. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Shelly Banjo in New York at sbanjo@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Gongloff at mgongloff1@bloomberg.net