Advent of luxury calendars means the Christmas countdown isn't just for kids anymore

Rebecca Doucette lingered at the front of a tea shop along Robson Street in Vancouver on the second-to-last Friday in November. She'd already left the till, purchases tucked away in her bag, but she hung back at a shimmery display near the open door.

A glossy blue package accented with crimson trim and pale snowflakes was propped open on a display. Two dozen gold numbers were printed across two dozen sliding drawers, hiding two dozen teabags that counted down until Christmas Eve.

"It's like a little mini-present every day," said Doucette, 26, glancing down at the holiday advent calendar. "As an adult, you don't get that much."

Advent calendars have expanded well beyond the traditional kid-friendly countdowns stuffed with chocolate. Alternative calendars have exploded in recent years, many containing luxury products tailored for adult customers.

The concept is a marketing fantasy, experts say, capitalizing on holiday spending merriment while pushing a wide range of sample-sized products into consumers' hands.

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The traditional advent calendar dates back to the 1800s. The advent, for some denominations, refers to the four Sundays before Christmas and is said to have begun with countdowns written in chalk for children. 

Now, advent calendars can be found filled with full-sized ranges of beauty products, essential oils, specialty teas, vegan gummy bears, artisan cheese, cannabis, luxury perfumes, sex toys, short stories, hair scrunchies, and — at one B.C. market — poutine-flavoured dog treats. Alcohol is a common variant, with many calendars filled with either wine, whisky or craft beer.

They hit shelves early and sell out quickly, often well before Black Friday.

The cost isn't always modest anymore, either. Tiffany and Co., the Fifth Avenue luxury jeweller, released a six-figure advent calendar in late October.

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Marketing experts say the calendars are a boon for consumer and retailer alike. For the average buyer, they're a way to treat themselves or sample a product they've been eyeing all year.

"You can't really try more than two perfumes at a time in a store. With this, you could try them over time and, perhaps, see which one you like," said Judy Zaichowsky, a marketing professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Burnaby, B.C.

The calendars are also a safe bet for the dithering gift-giver.

"Sometimes, people don't know what to get for people and they see this and they think, 'Oh ... there's lots of different things and I don't have to make a decision — there's maybe something in there that's really great," said Zaichowsky, who holds a PhD and 40 years of experience in marketing.

Retailers, she added, hope the person who ends up with the calendar find at least one of the 24 products worth a repeat investment. 

"It's an opportunity to showcase their whole range of product ... they're bound to find something there that they do like," said Zaichowsky.

Coast to Coast Medicinals

There are downfalls to the trend.

The calendars are seldom reusable, often chock-full of single-use packaging that creates a disproportionate amount of waste.

For businesses, success requires a delicate consideration of supply and demand — any stock left over after Dec. 1 isn't likely to sell for full price.

Doucette, who's a public policy student at SFU, says she waits to buy an advent calendar when it's on sale a few days into December. They're a treat, but not one worthy of breaking the bank.

"It does keep the Christmas spirit going — for all ages," she said.