Saturday, September 8, 2012

Still Life With Robin: Target of Time

by Peggy Robin

Einstein theorized that the flow of time is relative to speed; for retailers the flow of time appears to be relative to the flow of cash or credit. I reached this conclusion a few days ago while standing in the paper and party products aisle at the big Giant on Westbard Avenue in Bethesda, as I found myself adrift in a vast sea of Thanksgiving products. It was three days before Labor Day. In other words, it was still August, and yet the paper pilgrims had arrived.

I probably should have had this epiphany around the first of July, when I first spied back-to-school products on the shelves of Target and other discount stores. Time has speeded up in the retail world; those long-dreaded words “Back to School” never used to appear until around the time of the Perseids meteor shower (around August 11). But then again, the first day of school has crept forward  too -- in my time it was never before Labor Day. Having the first day of school in August still strikes me as some kind of calendar anomaly. But then there was no air conditioning back when I was in school and no one could have been expected to think straight in the late summer heat.

As a side effect of all this forward momentum in holiday retailing is a conflation of the holidays themselves. If the Thanksgiving paraphernalia is already out, so is the Halloween candy, and those pop-up costume stores can’t be far behind. And just behind them comes the juggernaut of Christmas. By the end of this month, all three events will be fully upon us, immersing us in the visual chaos of competing Santas, pumpkins, turkeys, ghosts, princesses, Darth Vaders and slutty French maids.

Just as we are returning to retailing normalcy sometime in the middle of January, the Valentines hearts and candies will appear, closely followed by the shamrocks and leprachauns of St. Patrick’s Day, and then, as the retailing time vortex whirls you around, before you have a chance to get your bearings, there are jumbo Easter bunnies dancing in the aisles, and then the graduation caps and gowns and diplomas announcing the school’s-out sales.

After that, time seems to come to a weird standstill as the retail universe becomes a purposeless void. For about a month, there’s no focus, no motion. And then, one day, jarringly, you are in a store and you push your shopping cart around a corner, and there it is, that first “Back to School” banner looming overhead. And you know that time has resumed its retail rush, and you can start spending again.


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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