Oct 27, 2023 - Economy

Advent calendars go luxe, with food and cosmetics

One of the many advent calendars sold at Sephora. This $99 version is so popular that it's often stored behind the counter lest it sell out too quickly. Photo: Jennifer A. Kingson for Axios

Advent calendars, originally a way for Christian parents to teach their children about the meaning of Christ's birth, have turned into a sales-and-branding opportunity and a new holiday product category.

What's happening: Modern calendars dispense not just a tiny piece of chocolate or a holiday-themed picture, but jewelry, cosmetics, perfume, bottles of wine, dog toys and more.

Why it matters: As retailers press for new ways to extend the holiday shopping season, advent calendars are an attractive frontier — a gift you ideally give someone in late November, so they can start opening a window a day on or around Dec. 1 (and buy more of a product if they like the sample).

  • The latest crop of calendars jettisons the religious raison d'être: To proffer a prayer or Bible verse, perhaps sweetened with a bite of chocolate to entice a child.
  • Instead, the delight comes from repeatedly "unboxing" a surprise and sampling a new or familiar indulgence.
  • "Anticipation calendars also give consumers the opportunity to experiment with products the recipient has not tried before" — potentially returning to buy the product again, says Mintel, the consumer brand consultancy.

Driving the news: Businesses small and large have discovered the sales and advertising power of the advent calendar, which fuels what marketers call "discoverability."

  • "When you can make your product last for 12 — or even 25 — days of discovery, people are willing and eager to buy," Inc. magazine observes.
  • Major retail brands — from Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue to Sephora and Williams Sonoma — have discovered they can charge big bucks for tiny samples nestled into fun-to-open packages.
  • The calendars are produced in limited quantities and often sell out quickly, generating buzz and consumer demand through enforced scarcity.

What they're saying: "Not only do advent or anticipation calendars prompt more pre-holiday purchases, but they can also prolong the holiday in the other direction," Mintel observes.

  • "By providing an array of tastings of specific treats, the calendars help consumers zero in on treats to buy at the end of the holiday."
Bloomingdale's $300 advent calendar comes with all manner of lipsticks, perfumes, candles and facial cleansers. Photo: Jennifer A.Kingson for Axios

Between the lines: Now that retailers are tripping over themselves to sell advent calendars, media outlets are publishing lists of the year's best — a modern update to annual gift guides.

  • Check out the guides from Town & Country, Food Network (which lists a whopping 85 of them), TODAY.com (68!) or CNN (61).
  • While the most prevalent calendars proffer food, drink, jewelry and beauty products, there are also versions for cat and dog owners.
  • Some calendars are geared toward the original target audience — children — only they're filled with LEGO or Nintendo characters rather than lessons about the baby Jesus.

Case study: The power of a modern advent calendar as a marketing tool can be seen in the experience of coffee purveyor Bean Box, which scored a big retail deal with Walmart after selling out all 10,000 of its advent calendars last year.

Of note: If you go down the rabbit hole of viewing gift-laden advent calendars — Jennifer self-consciously raises her hand here — you'll find that several have become cult items, notably one with 23 tiny jams and a tiny jar of honey from Bonne Maman.

  • Aldi, which will drop its new crop of advent calendars on Nov. 1, also has become a destination for these items, with calendars dedicated to everything from puzzles and toy slime to scented candles and sparkling wine.
Aldi's advent calendars have become cult favorites and drop Nov. 1. Photo: Courtesy of Aldi

Companies are also now offering year-end countdown calendars for Jews.

  • Fancy chocolatier Phillip Ashley offers a $149 "Hanukkah calendar" with eight kinds of "luxury bonbons."
  • Beauty company Philip B. offers eight types of hair products in a $150 "Hanukkah calendar" collection. (If only the Maccabees had a sample-size peppermint avocado shampoo.)
  • Calendars pegged to Kwanzaa and Ramadan are out there, but seem to be scarcer and less commercial.

The backstory: Advent calendars, devised by German Protestants in the 19th century, are "tools, devised by adults for children, to make the remaining time until Christmas Eve countable and to stir up anticipation," per the German Christmas Museum.

  • In the olden days, that meant "ticking off chalk marks on walls or doors, lighting candles and placing straws in a Nativity crib," according to NPR.
  • The first printed advent calendar came out in the early 1900s, around the same time that a German newspaper included one as an insert for readers.

What's next: Expect to see more "anticipation calendars" year-round, as retailers expand the popular concept to events like birthdays and other holidays.

Axios' Kelly Tyko contributed reporting.

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