Christmas decorating trends
What to expect this season
I honestly thought when volunteering for this assignment that finding out what the big Christmas trends for 2010 were going to be would be easy since it was already March and the season was just eight months away. Surely all the merchants had placed their big orders with the manufacturers and knew what they would be pushing hard for the holidays. Boy, was I wrong.
If I was a newbie I’d be concerned but experience has taught me no one really wants to say much, at least on the record, because no one has confidence what the real trends are going to be this year. After endless phone calls, emails, lunches and maybe a few drinks, some Christmas 2010 trends are starting to come into focus. Most of what you are about to read is off-the-record with only a few people willing to have their named attached to a quote in a magazine.
If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times: everything is going green. For those into Christmas lights, green means using LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology because it consumes considerably less power and has a much longer life than other types of lights. Recycling and/or refurbishing old design elements is now on designer’s minds as they see a link to the past while at the same time mindful of the customers wanting to save a little bit of money. Aluminum Christmas trees continue their return from being so popular in the early 60’s as do the standard Christmas colors of red, green and gold.
State of the Christmas Business
Christmas vendors did a little better in 2009 than the previous year but all are dreaming for the good old days of 2007 when customers bought with abandon. Some vendors have changed their business model and cut the fat in order to survive. Others have decided to batten down the hatches and weather the economic storm the best they can. A few just barely scraped by but are now cautiously optimistic. Money remains tight but all vendors now anticipate an improvement in sales over 2009. None expect the good old days to return this year, though.
An interesting result of high unemployment during an economic downturn is more people than ever are looking to get into business for themselves. Quite a few see opportunity in the Christmas decorating niche. The current franchises have resisted embracing any animated displays because of the perceived complexities of installation. Dealership opportunities are opening up with some of the major manufacturers and resellers. People comfortable with decorating and willing to step away from the corporate rat race have an opportunity to spin up a local Christmas business and do well. Decorating for other people remains lucrative but the trick will be bringing together the right product mix for your community. The consensus is if you’re going to enter the Christmas business in 2010, start working on it now.
I checked out the Christmasworld major tradeshow in Frankfurt, Germany back in January. Some 30,000 people strolled through an exhibition hall with 900+ exhibitors from around the world. The focus was on quality. Seems when money is tight buyers start comparing products to make sure they’re getting what they pay for. That’s a good sign for us the consumer because we’ve all bought Christmas “cheap” that doesn’t even make it through one season. Unfortunately, very few real trends could be seen at the show, probably because we had just finished with Christmas 2009. I’m not sure if PlanetChristmas magazine will spring for any European trips in the future.
Indoor Christmas decorations are taking a slightly new direction. Where silver has been more popular than gold in the past, designers are anticipating a shift to bronze this year.
Tarah Fred at WinterlandInc.com says everyone loves ornaments and garlands but now they want them oversized. Taking the classic light bulb and making designs with it for wreaths, and garlands is going to be big this year.
Many homeowners have become frustrated because their Christmas decorations in the family room never end up looking like what they see in the store. With people having less time because there’s so much more to do during the day, the professional designers are pulling together complete interior packages with color coordinated Christmas themes, a bit like what the Rooms To Go chain does with furniture. Just pick a look out of a catalog, know it’s already coordinated and will fit perfectly with other similar items and you’re good to go. Look for matched garland, wreaths trees and table settings in a few months. You too can look like Macy’s.
Judging by the never-ending emails I receive from the other side of the world, USB (Universal Serial Bus) powered desktop Christmas trees will be quite the rage this year. Just plug your little tree into the computer and the LEDs light up. No animation though. Seems a bit odd to me if you need a $500 computer to power a $10 desktop holiday decoration.
Battery operated ultra-mini light strings using LEDs will be prominent this year. These tiny lights can be included in a wreath, garland or bowl of pine cones and there’s no need for an ugly extension cord. Because the lights are LED they’ll work all season on just one set of batteries. The ones I’ve seen aren’t the brightest in the world but the effect is perfect for indoor environments.
More vendors are importing artificial indoor trees pre-lit with LEDs directly from China. The challenge in the past with these trees was large parts would go dark if there was a problem with one LED. The only fix was to pull off the old light string and weave in a new one. Now that LED strings are available with replacement bulbs, pre-lit trees using LEDs make sense. I’ve seen a few of these late generation models and admit to thinking they were freshly cut and just decorated. The branches look incredibly real and some even have a tree scent embedded in the needles. I kept waiting for a critter to pop out.
Outdoors and Large Venues
Everyone keeps looking for that silver lining during these tough economic times and apparently it’s a societal shift to more traditional family values. Christmas has always been a magical time for children and large venues are pulling together bigger and brighter displays knowing the kids will pull their parents along. At the same time the grown-ups want to re-live their fond childhood memories.
Drive through light parks are starting to change. Everyone is used to the three and four step animation sequences in many of the simple displays (think of an elf juggling a Christmas gift) but now expect more. The Twelve Days of Christmas displays are being upgraded to illuminate at just the right time with the song. Some of the parks are super-sizing their metal frames to bigger-than-billboard size and animating a slice of a larger story, all done with LED based mini-lights. Traffic cameras are even being installed at park entrances so people can check the wait time on the Internet before they head that way. I can’t help but think Apple will soon offer “an app for that.” A trend also gaining traction is for local artists to record a Christmas album with references to the community and sell the CDs and/or downloads in the gift shop at the end of the route.
There’s a trend towards pay-per-view Christmas light shows according to Duane Groet at WinterlandInc.com. It involves setting up very elaborate light shows in large venues like ballparks, race tracks or theatres and charging people a few dollars to watch a 30 minute light extravaganza. It’s a very controlled environment for the show and also provides a venue for smaller groups (Scouts, service organizations, local merchants, etc.) to come together and raise money.
Those gigantic Christmas trees at the shopping mall are definitely trending towards LED lighting. 30’ to 50’ tall trees that used to consume a steady 200 amps of power now work fine with 20 amps. If you’ve ever watched one of the trees being assembled you’ll note it’s just a bunch of two foot high concentric steel rings stacked on top of each other to hold up the outer cover of the tree consisting of branches or panels. Newer trees are using three foot high rings to speed assembly because in the commercial world, time is money. These trees are now available from the manufacturers already wired for computer animation. Just add the light controllers and a sound system to dazzle your customers.
Melissa Davis at ChristmasDoneBright.com is big into pre-lit wireframes and sees her customers buying the same dollar amount as in the past but they’re purchasing more items at a lower price. LEDs are the big trend in her world. She anticipates the religious themed items and the standard “Santa Sleigh with Reindeer” to continue to be good sellers. She also admitted these items have always been her best sellers no matter what the economy is doing.
I tried hard to get anyone to talk on the record about what was coming this year in the inflatables world. Competition must be pretty stiff out there because I got nowhere fast.
The only person in my quest for trends in 2010 who was actually worked up about upcoming products was Laurie Reinders of Reinders.com. “I am most excited about our LED light tubes and blizzard tubes that we will be distributing this year. The price has really come down. We will be handling them in three sizes and you can achieve some awesome effects with them. We also are stocking a smaller version in a C7 and C9 bulb.” I’m sold.
Manufacturing and Technology
Laurie Reinders was quick to tell me one-piece light socket construction is here to stay. Seems moisture sneaking into multi-part sockets is the biggest reason for failure in the field. Makes sense when you stop to think about it.
Val Piechur of Christmas-LEDs.com sees a big demand for colored bulb cover/clips. If you’re into lighting wireframes you can use all white/clear bulbs and place these colored covers where necessary to add some pop.
Christmas lighting technology continues to move towards LEDs. The brightness issues of years past seem to have been fixed and in many cases it’s hard to tell the difference between 2009 incandescents and 2010 LEDs. The pros do recommend going with “full wave” LED sets meaning most people won’t see the lights flicker. What does “full wave” mean? I won’t get techie on you but it’s a way to use more of the electricity coming out of your typical wall socket. Ask your supplier before buying any large quantities of LEDs.
Remember in years past when there were multiple shades of the same color LED? White was always my favorite. There was warm white, cool white, antique white, bright white, off white, near white, blush, clear, crystal clear and clear blush, just to name a few. This was fine if you always bought the exact same color but nothing looked worse than wrapping a tree and ending up with multiple colors of white lights. Seems most LEDs look exactly the same color when no power is applied. Colors are starting to settle down and there seems to be consistency between batches. The latest generation has the same warm glow as incandescents. Look for pink and teal colored LED strings to be popular this year.
C7/C9 retrofit bulbs now have more internal LEDs so they’re brighter, though you can still save money by purchasing bulbs with fewer internal lights. Retrofits that dim/fade are becoming the norm though they will never have the same dimming characteristics of incandescents. Prices will stay about the same as 2009 but since the bulbs are almost unbreakable and so energy efficient they’re a wise investment.
LED addressability is showing signs of real promise. GalaxiaLighting.com pioneered this in the Christmas world a couple of years ago by providing a way to directly control each individual LED in a light strand. Last year they introduced full color LEDs. Expect several vendors to offer addressable light strings this year. The technology is still hard to work with but the end results can be dazzling. The same magic used to create the over-the-top halftime light show with the Who in the 2010 Super Bowl is heading your way.
Brad Boyink of ComputerizedLighting.com is working on a full color outdoor grade LED curtain that can display moving graphics for under $1,000. The preliminary videos are very impressive and I’m sure we’re all imagining giant screen videos in our displays. Early reports of the product indicated there’s very basic DMX (Digital MultipleX) control and you can only use built-in light patterns. This is definitely worth watching closely over the next few months.
For the ultimate control the challenge boils down to how do you get any moving image on a computer screen translated to a light curtain or mega-tree? Using RGB (Red Green Blue) based LEDs is apparently the answer. Inside one of these LEDs are three small colored LEDs; one red, green and blue. By mixing these colors almost any other color can be created. DMX is the current control standard but each RGB based LED requires three DMX channels and having a thousand or more RGB LEDs in one design element will become the norm. I have trouble keeping track of four fingers and a thumb on one hand… imagining thousands of channels to coordinate on a mega-tree scares the heck out of me. If you’ve ever been to a Trans Siberian Orchestra concert you realize the professional light designers are already tackling the issue of thousands of light control channels to coordinate. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) light venue designing is becoming accepted by the professionals meaning the very high software costs will start dropping soon. Watch for the professional light designer tools to migrate into the Christmas world. To get a sneak peak, checkout Cast-soft.com
Many resellers talked about light movement in 2010 and they were thinking about much simpler products than the sophisticated light curtains. Expect more LED based snow drip tubes, light blizzards and light fountains. The LEDs will be brighter, built with higher quality and have more fluid movement. Most will remain expensive because of the high amount of labor required to build these items. The latest twist seems to be Asia is showing signs of a labor shortage.
The most tight-lipped people I talked with were the lighting control vendors and folks writing the sequencing software. They must have received an earful from irritated people in 2009 trying to dim their LEDs. Seems old fashioned incandescent lights have the same dimming characteristics no matter what the bulb color might be. Not so in the LED world. Every LED color has different characteristics and typically over a much more limited dimming range than incandescents. Then there’s the issue of some strings not dimming at all or others that might start dimming if you simply change the polarity of the AC where you plug it in the wall. There’s not a universal answer to the LED dimming challenge but some are looking at speeding up the processors on the light controller boards, tweaking the firmware to better handle dimming inconsistencies and adding “light characteristic” parameters to each channel of the sequencing software. If this was an easy fix I’m sure they would have already figured it out long ago.
A trend I heard from multiple sources to address the LED dimming issue was the “shunt.” It’s nothing more than an incandescent C7 bulb and plug. Attach it to the end of a string of LEDs and they take on the characteristics of the old fashioned C7 bulb, at least in the perfect world. There have been very strong hints a container load of these “shunts” will be heading our way but confirmation is elusive. Seems these shunts don’t always work and there’s the issue of the glass bulb breaking. Maybe this is the ultimate LED dimming fix but I really doubt it.
There you have it. LEDs, quality and bigger/brighter/flashier is heading our way this Christmas season. If you read between the lines though, people want to mix yesterday with today but have someone else do the work. In some ways people are lazy and they want someone else to do all the work, especially when it cones to over-the-top decorating for the Christmas season. The PlanetChristmas community is more than willing to help. It’s become all-too-obvious we’re the ones really setting the Christmas trends.
Tick tock. Get to work. Christmas 2010 is already one day closer than yesterday.
This article was included in the March 2010 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.
By Chuck Smith