- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 24, 2009

DENVER | The Gap is naughty, Target is nice, and Dick’s Sporting Goods is a little of both, according to preliminary results of Focus on the Family’s annual Stand for Christmas project, which invites shoppers to evaluate retailers based on their Christmas-friendliness.

Now in its third year, the Stand for Christmas Web site asks customers to rate stores and provide online evaluations based on how readily they embrace the word “Christmas” and its themes. The scores are updated continuously on the standforchristmas.com Web site.

Stores that specifically mention Christmas in their advertising and decorations, or whose sales clerks wish their customers “Merry Christmas,” are more likely to win a “Friendly” rating. Retailers that settle for a “Happy Holidays” approach to the season are likely to receive a rating of “Negligent” or even “Offensive.”

Not all retailers fall neatly into one camp or the other. The scores reflect the varied experiences of customers. For example, Dick’s Sporting Goods received a score of 39 percent Friendly, 43 percent Negligent and 17 percent Offensive, according to the results as of Monday afternoon.

The idea is to encourage retailers to keep the Christ in Christmas and counter the recent drift toward the secularization of the holiday, said Focus on the Family’s Carrie Gordon Earll.

“We’ve seen in recent years there’s been a trend toward moving away from Christmas and toward kind of generic greetings like ‘Happy Holidays,’ not only in stores but in advertising and messaging,” said Mrs. Earll, Focus’s senior director of issues analysis, in a Dec. 18 video message.

Focus notified the 29 stores selected for the project in advance, and plans to send them the results, including demographic data, at the end of the holiday shopping season. The retailers range from department stores such as Dillard’s Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. to catalog companies like L.L. Bean and Lands’ End.

“It’s about building relationships as well as promoting Christmas,” Mrs. Earll said.

So far, thousands of shoppers have participated in the project by ranking stores, writing reviews and sending messages to retailers, which can be done on the Web site. The site had received about 125,000 hits as of mid-December.

The most Christmas-friendly store to date? That would be Bass Pro Shops, which has received a 98 percent Friendly rating. The stores, which specialize in outdoor recreational gear, set up an elaborate Christmas Village each year for children, advertise “Christmas sales,” and greet customers with “Merry Christmas,” according to the Web site’s comments.

“I was very surprised and very pleased to hear the Christmas carols with all verses over the [public-address system], even the lyrics celebrating Jesus being born as the Son of God!” according to one comment.

Other retailers earning top marks for their commitment to Christmas were Cabela’s, Dillard’s, J.C. Penney, Kmart, Kohl’s, Lands’ End, and Sears.

Those in danger of finding lumps of coal in their stockings include the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic. All three are owned by Gap Inc., and so far none has received a Friendly percentage higher than 12 percent. The Gap chain has an Offensive rating of 80 percent.

Those posting comments said they were particularly offended by the Gap’s 2009 holiday ad campaign. The television commercials show dancers chanting, “Go, Christmas! Go, Hanukkah! Go, Kwanzaa! Go, solstice!”

“You 86 the rules. You do what just feels right. Happy do-whatever-you-want-to-do and to all, a cheery night!” says the television ad.

While the ads mention Christmas, many of those posting comments were offended by the message’s who-cares attitude.

“I agree that the ads, in the interest of being ‘inclusive,’ are actually offensive to people of faith,” said one comment on the Stand for Christmas Web site.

Gap Inc. issued a statement saying that, as a global retailer, its brands “embrace diversity across all of our customers, and more importantly respect their beliefs as individuals.”

The company also denied accusations that it doesn’t use the word Christmas, pointing to its Gap television commercials and its Old Navy ads showing mannequins who say, “Merry Christmas.”

“Reflecting our long-held philosophy to embrace a variety of beliefs, we invite our customers to celebrate the holidays in their own way,” said the Dec. 8 statement.

Another comment, posted by someone self-identified as a Gap store manager and Christian, asked shoppers to remember that “Gap is a business not a church, and we have Jews, Muslims, atheists and Christians who come into our store.”

The manager added that some Christians had been rude to Gap employees. “Please be nice, retail workers need Christ, too!” said the message.

Focus is backing its pro-Christmas message to retailers with hard data. In a Focus-commissioned survey conducted in March by Wilson Research Strategies, 60 percent of those surveyed said they favor the use of “Merry Christmas” over “Happy Holidays.” Of those, 44 percent said they would be more likely to shop at stores that use “Merry Christmas” in their advertising.

The results of a Rasmussen Reports survey released in November were even more dramatic, showing that 72 percent of those surveyed favored “Merry Christmas” over a more secular message.

“Retailers need to just know that people care about Christmas,” Mrs. Earll said. “They want to have that referenced as they’re shopping.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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