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Money for nothing: how the internet has changed the face of the traditional British Christmas

How much money will your family spend this Christmas on something they can never touch and will never own?

By Eleanor Levy. Additional reporting: Gary Crossing, Megan Rose and Ann-Marie Corvin 

The average British family plans to spend over £800 on Christmas[1], but what we spend it on has changed over the years.

The rise of technology and the introduction of new forms of entertainment made possible by the internet has meant that the traditional British family Christmas is radically different to how it was when today’s parents were children.

Gone are the days when the family would all sit down to watch the Queen and Christmas Top of the Pops before spending the evening playing board games waiting to watch The Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show together.

Nowadays, families are just as likely to spend Christmas day in separate rooms on different devices, enjoying some of the presents they’ve just received: eBooks, downloaded music, online games or the latest streamed box set on their new Netflix subscription.

And two things unite all these gifts. One, you don't have to wrap them because they don't actually exist in physical form. And two, despite the fact someone will have paid hard earned money for them, the person receiving them will never be able to call them their own. Because so many of the entertainment presents given this Christmas will not be bought - but licensed.

Which means, that if Dad receives an eBook of Ed Balls autobiography and then some time in the future decides to cancel his Amazon account, the book will disappear from his Kindle. And if Mum decides to cancel her iTunes account, all the music shes paid for over the years will no longer be available to her.

Ed Balls

Most of us, without even realising it, are using the 21st Century equivalent of Radio Rentals, paying money to ‘borrow’ things to entertain us.

In the old days, we would have rented a new TV or VCR, now it’s the latest X-Men film or Jack Reacher novel. And while it certainly saves on dusting all those shelves of books and DVD cases, it can also mean we’re increasingly trapped into paying subscriptions for services we may no longer want just so we can continue to access goods we've already paid for.

In fact, last year in the UK, we spent just under £3.5bn on downloadable games, music, movies and books.[2]

To quote Dire Straits, millions of us are paying money for nothing every year.

One consequence of so many of our possessions existing in the virtual world is the very real possibility of losing them if your account is compromised or your tech goes wrong. Which is why it's important to keep your passwords safe - and to back up your purchases.

Parent Zone CEO Vicki Shotbolt says: ‘Digital has transformed gift gifting just as it has transformed other aspects of family life. Many parents will welcome the fact that shelves are no longer groaning under the weight of DVDs and games but it’s sobering to realise that we are all spending our money on things we cant actually touch, or even keep. It means we all need to be more careful with backing up our stuff and making sure we are keeping our virtual assets properly secure.’

How the internet has changed Christmas

The internet has a pivotal role in the new traditional family Christmas.

From ordering your Kelly Bronze turkey online, to setting up an Amazon Wishlist to send to Auntie Sheila, to Skypeing your relatives in New Zealand on Christmas morning, the online world now impacts on Christmas like never before.

Christmas Day will see a flurry of posts on social media – selfies showing off Christmas jumpers or greetings sent to friends and relatives around the world. Even the software you use to tweak the images before you post them won’t be yours. You used to be able to buy Photoshop, but now you have to pay a subscription for it.

Last year, BT reported a 95% increase in Wi-Fi use on Christmas Day,[3] while Virgin Media noted the average home had at least five devices connected at peak times between 5pm and 10pm, with the majority being smartphones.[4]

And whereas Christmas Day used to be the one day of the year when you weren’t able to spend money, 6.3% of people surveyed by uSwitch before last year's festive period said they planned to spend Christmas Day shopping online.

Most people, though, seem happy with the changes. When asked, 64% of respondents to our recent survey said they believed technology had changed Christmas for the better.*

There is, though, one aspect of Christmas that doesn’t seem to have been affected by the internet. Despite the existence of eCards, last year saw the biggest ever amount spent on greetings cards in the UK. According to the Greetings Card Association, 900m Christmas cards were sold in boxes and packs in the UK – worth around £200m.[5]

Money for nothing

How much we use and spend on virtual products in the UK[6]

Online music sales

25.7m albums downloaded.

133m singles bought – almost entirely via download.

26.8bn songs streamed from digital services such as Spotify and Apple Music.

The estimated retail value of audio streams in 2015 was £251m.[7]

Around 5m people in the UK subscribe to a music streaming service.[8]

Online movies and box sets

More than 6.5m UK households are signed up to some sort of video-streaming service.[9]

As of March 2016, Netflix had more than 5m subscribers in the UK, with around 1.6m households subscribing to Amazon Prime Instant video.

Around £1.31bn will be spent on streaming and downloading movies this year, 23% up on 2015.[10]

Online books

As of February 2016, it was estimated that 16.5m people (a quarter of the population) would use an eReader this year.[11]

An estimated 85.5m eBooks were sold in 2015. Even though this was down on previous years, it still amounted to an estimated retail value of £381.5m.[12]

Audiobook downloads increased by 24% in the same year – worth an estimated £6m.[13]

Online TV services

Our Christmas family TV watching habits have also changed radically with the advent of catch up services such as iPlayer, and the introduction of digital recording platforms like Sky+ and Virgin’s TiVO.

When the BBC revived Doctor Who in 2005, two years before iPlayer was launched, the first Christmas special was watched by over 9m people on Christmas night.[14]

Last year’s Christmas special with the Doctor saw just under 6m sitting down together to watch it - although over 8m had seen it by the following week, courtesy or repeats and iPlayer.[15]

A uSwitch survey in November 2015 found that a third of families will use online services to manage their TV watching over Christmas.

32.8% of families said they would either record shows or watch them on different devices within the home to avoid arguments over the remote control.

Online gaming

The digital games market is huge. Digital sales of games (£1.5bn) are bigger than the combined digital sales of video and music (£1.3bn). 30% of total UK game revenue is generated via apps games.[16]

Cloud gaming service Playstation Now charges £12.99 a month to access all available games on the service.

While many of the top selling video games don’t have to be played online, the most popular titles have that option. Last year’s best selling title in the UK was FIFA16, which allows players to compete online against other players. Released in late September, it had sold nearly 1.9m units up to the end of December 2015.[17]

Online shopping

UK retailers took £24m over the Christmas period last year – 27% of business taking place online.[18]

The internet may not have invented the pre-Christmas shopping horror show that is Black Friday, but it was an online retailer, Amazon, who introduced this all-American tradition to the UK.[19]

Amazon UK sold more than 7.4m items on Black Friday last year – this was up by almost 2m items on 2014 – that’s around 86 items per second. This year, it is spreading the event over 12 days instead of one.

According to HotUKDeals, customers are more likely to purchase discounted tech items that any other product on Black Friday.

John Lewis reported that TVs sold at a rate of 3.2 every minute during last year's retail frenzy, while connected home products (ones that can be controlled via the web) nearly doubled, with sales up 90% on the previous year. The retailer saw a considerable spike in wearable tech too - with sales up 850% year-on-year, with Fitbits, the wearable activity trackers, up more than 1,200%.

This year, retail consultancy Salmon is predicting £5bn worth of transactions between Thursday 24 November and Cyber Monday (yes, that is now a thing too) on 28 November.

But it’s not just presents that are bought via the internet. More of us are buying our Christmas lunch online too, using supermarkets online stores. 

Last Christmas, Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coup revealed, ‘Groceries online sales grew at nearly 10 per cent and orders by 15 per cent. We had a record week in the quarter, delivering over 289,000 online orders.’


Has the internet changed your Christmas traditions? Tell us what you think in our new Forum!


Also see:

Five blow the budget Christmas tech stocking fillers

* Facebook survey conducted by Parent Zone November 2016. 

[2] £3.467billion

[6] Figures for 2015 unless otherwise stated.

[8]Spotify has 3.6m paying subscribers. Apple Music has just over a million paying subscribers in the UK. Deezer and Google Play each have a little over 500,000 paying subscribers in the UK.

Main image: public domain. Other images; Parent Zone