Is it worth it? The true cost of Christmas | KPMG | UK

Is it worth it? The true cost of Christmas

Is it worth it? The true cost of Christmas

Picture the scene: weary after another year locked in data rooms and pouring over figures, the KPMG economics team gather for one final roundup. With slippers on, a roaring fire in the hearth and glasses of mulled wine by their side, talk turns to the economics of Christmas.



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Is it worth it? The true cost of Christmas

Who benefits from Christmas?

The retail sector is the obvious answer. Sales in December are 50 percent higher than in an average month [1] and percentage sales of seasonal items – turkeys, Brussels sprouts, and those nasty alcoholic chocolates - will be even higher. 

This retail boom has a knock on effect on employment, with stores taking on extra staff to help them through the busy period. Many of these staff will be students, which in turn subsidises the education sector. Anecdotal evidence from one economist, who used to get some excellent Christmas tips on his paper round, indicates that seasonal earnings can act as a 13th month of income for part-time workers.

The service sector is another winner. Festive celebrations mean tills ringing in pubs and restaurants, which in turn benefits the drinks industry. This also boosts the pharmaceuticals sector, as sales of painkillers, digestion remedies and energy drinks soar to cope with the day after. 

Panto perks

Christmas pantomime provides an essential service to the acting profession. Many former soap-stars, children’s TV presenters and one-hit wonders simply could not survive without this seasonal assistance to their bank balance.

Christmas entertainment also provides a bonus for broadcasters, as people switch on to escape another round of charades with drunken uncles, aunts and grandparents. 

Who loses from Christmas?

According to the economist Joel Waldfogel, inefficient gift giving cost $4 billion in the US, in 2001 [2]. That figure can only be higher 14 years later. Not to mention the disappointment of once again receiving socks and missing out on the Porsche and diamond earrings you really wanted.

Bah, humbug

But business is the biggest loser. With three bank holidays, the drop in output is significant. The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that each bank holiday costs the economy around £2.3 billion [3]. Only 2.9 percent of the labour force works on Christmas Day, according to the ONS [4].

Note that these figures do not take into account the significant drop in productivity experienced by workers on the day (or days) following their Christmas party. The economics team estimate a minimum 50 percent post-party dip – possibly higher. 

Even without this drop in productivity, the loss to the economy of almost £7 billion sustained over three bank holidays is 0.4 percent of GDP. The economy is currently growing at 2.4 percent, so in other words cutting Christmas could boost our growth next year by a sixth.   

So should George Osborne cancel Christmas?

It would certainly result in a swifter reduction of the UK deficit. It is possible that the retail sales concentrated at Christmas would be spread more evenly throughout the year. People would also avoid personal debt from excess gift giving. Christmas is frequently described as a festival ‘for children’, who as any parent knows, can be a bit of a drain on personal finances. 

However, it is possible that people would take the opportunity to go abroad on holiday instead, which would remove money from the British economy – not a plus for Mr Osborne. Charities would also lose out. With annual giving 5 percent higher on average in December in 2014 [5], he would need to subsidise state services more highly to make up the shortfall.

Then, there is happiness. Richard Layard at the London School of Economics puts it “GDP is a hopeless measure of welfare”. We should measure the happiness of our society instead he argues [6]. While Christmas can be a difficult time for some, overall it would seem to increase happiness. As economists, we find it difficult to put a value on activities like spending time with family, watching your children in a nativity play or supporting the vulnerable in your community. Perhaps it’s because they are priceless.

Merry Christmas!

Macroeconomic blog

The latest thoughts from Yael Selfin, Chief Economist at KPMG in the UK

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This article represents the views of the author only, and does not necessarily represent the views or professional advice of KPMG in the UK.

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