It goes without saying that 2018 has been an especially tough year for retailers.

A combination of growing competition from online rivals and changing shopping habits have resulted in numerous store closures and in some cases, retailers going into administration. Meanwhile, ongoing anxieties around Brexit and the general economy are weighing heavy on consumer moods and, as a result, pulling those purse strings ever tighter.

And it looks like a bleak Christmas is on the horizon, especially for the high street. Total retail spending is expected to rise just 4% year on year in December, according to Mintel, and the bulk of that increase won’t be on the high street. Food sales are predicted to increase by 3.3%, while non-food sales will be up just 1.7%. And amid that, online sales will increase 14% – accounting for almost 12% of all retail spending.

For most retailers, Christmas is the most important time of year when they make the vast majority of their profit, and so getting it right in the two-month run-up is absolutely crucial. Yet the downbeat attitude on the high street has hit their festive strategies.

Advertisers are expected to spend a record £6.4bn during the Christmas season this year, according to the Advertising Association (AA). But the increase is going not to TV, the usual winner at Christmas as companies look to create an emotional connection with consumers, but to digital.

The AA predicts TV ad spend will decline by 1.4% to £1.43bn in the fourth quarter, while digital media spend is expected to rise by 12% to £3.5bn. And ITV is predicting a fall in its revenues in the Christmas quarter.

This is reflected in the marked change in creative and commercial strategy for the majority of brands this year, bringing into question whether the Christmas advertising period as we know it is having a watershed moment.

Bye bye, ‘vanity TV’ project?

There is a notable lack of blockbuster ads. Instead there is a much stronger focus on products, price and value – a move driven, in some cases, by necessity rather than choice.

A number of retailers that usually produce high-impact brand advertising at Christmas have turned their back on the “vanity TV project”, as Debenhams calls it, in favour of Marks & Spencer’s “unashamedly commercial” and digital-first approach.

“The world’s moved on,” Marks & Spencer’s marketing director of clothing and home, Nathan Ansell says. “In the world of modern marketing a lot of the entertainment value comes through social sharing.”

This year there are 15 times the number of products in M&S’s new clothing and home ad compared with 2017, while its Christmas food campaign – its biggest to date – has made a significant shift to focus on the value of its food for the first time. And there is a big push on social to engage people on a more emotional level, asking them to tweet their favourite M&S food.

It would be remiss of any marketer not to be thinking really carefully about how they spend and invest to maximise return on investment.

Richard Cristofoli, Debenhams

Debenhams’s marketing director, Richard Cristofoli, sums up the mood of many retailers: “In the current retail climate in the UK, how can I look a colleague in the eye when we’re all being told we need to manage costs carefully and make sure we’re driving a simplicity focus and efficiency, and then tell them I’ve spent millions on making a vanity project TV ad?

“It would be remiss of any marketer not to be thinking really carefully about how they spend and invest to maximise return on investment.”

It is understandable why many retailers have gone down a more direct route this year. And driving those all-important Christmas sales is of course at the top of every retailer’s list.

The concern with product-focused campaigns is they fail to relate with consumers on an emotional level – whether on TV or online and they risk fading into the background amid the Christmas ad hubbub.

TCC Global’s global creative director, Neil Cook, described this year’s slate of ads as “disappointingly anonymous” and like an “unimaginative shop windows”, while Graham Page, Millward Brown’s head of global research solutions, says this approach…