Why malls and retailers still believe in Santa

Even Santas might be in short supply this year, but companies are still finding ways to make the time-honored tradition work.
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Taubman Centers

· 7 min read

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Mitch Allen knew the holidays were going to be rough for Santa visits. The founder and self-proclaimed "Head Elf" of Hire Santa, which helps connect professional Santas with malls and other businesses, had to get creative. With virtual appointments and socially distanced visits, the company made the makeshift magic work.

This Christmas, as we (kind of) emerge from Covid, the spirit is in high demand, but there might not be enough to go around.

Where’s Santa? More than 1,275 full-season mall Santa jobs are currently open across the industry, Allen told Retail Brew, adding that he’s seen 15% fewer Santa Claus entertainers this year versus last Christmas season.

  • Some Santas died last year due to Covid, Allen said, and others are avoiding in-person gatherings because of the virus.

Meanwhile, there’s been a 121% increase in people reaching out to Hire Santa for events this year from 2020 and 2019 (interest was flat in 2020 over 2019), Allen added. He puts it at “hundreds” of calls every day, and his company has already started booking for 2022.

“Our retail clients use Santa to give back to their customers, but the primary reason is about drawing people into their establishments and having them spend time there,” Allen said. “Santa is a huge draw.”

The spirit is alive

Indeed, from Neiman Marcus to Taubman Centers, retail still believes in Santa.

“People are craving a return to normalcy, that thing they did every year, something their parents took them to, and now they’re taking their kids,” Taubman President and COO Bill Taubman told us. “There’s a realization on the consumer’s part that they love the experience of being at the mall, and they miss it. And they’re coming back to it almost with a vengeance this holiday.”

He emphasized the in-store holiday experience as “critical to communicating and establishing brand value and developing an emotional connection with the customer that differentiates you.”

  • This year, Taubman is working with Cherry Hill Programs to bring the “Santa’s Flight Academy holiday experience” to half of its 24 malls. Children don’t merely get pictures with Santa, they complete a present-delivery mission with him.

Lines for Santa visits have been steadily increasing across the company's properties, Taubman mentioned, especially during after-school hours and on the weekends.

“Customers waited in line for over three hours to have Santa take a photo with their pet,” he said of an event at The Mall at Short Hills, in New Jersey, earlier this month. Santa’s Flight Academy has been tracking to pre-pandemic levels, and the company expects it will exceed 2019 foot traffic.

Get real: Michael Brown, a partner in consumer products and retail practice at Kearney, agreed that the pent-up urge to get out of the house could be working in physical retail’s favor this holiday season.

“Consumers are spending 12 hours a day on their computer working. The last thing they want to do is spend another three hours on [a screen] shopping for Christmas,” he said.

Visiting Santa, too, is more of an experience than an errand. You stop at Starbucks for a peppermint hot chocolate, maybe take a trip to the toy store and see the big nutcracker while you’re at it. “Santa gives Mom one more reason that she has to go to the mall. She has to take the kids, and it’s a happy day for the entire family,” Brown explained. “It really is that traffic creator that’s one more step beyond the products [consumers] might need. In the days of e-comm, it’s even more important.”

“It’s a much longer stay at the mall,” he continued. “You’re surrounded by a lot more joy, rather than just walking into a store, looking at products, and standing in lines.”

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Happy days: CBL Properties, which operates 61 malls across the US, also wants to capitalize on that joy. In 2020, CBL’s malls employed safe Santa practices like reservations, masks, and social-distancing protocols, Stacey Keating, the company’s VP of corporate communications, said. Now, it’s bringing back more “traditional elements of the Santa photo experience” to its malls, lap sitting and all.

Reservations are encouraged but not required; masks also aren’t required unless mandated by local or state guidelines. (Santas must wear masks and be vaccinated.) And socially distanced visits are still an option, of course.

  • Foot traffic at CBL’s centers is back to pre-pandemic levels, according to Keating. Back-to-school season was particularly strong, so the operator is optimistic about holiday season in-store activity.

“Santa has been a time-honored tradition at the mall for decades. It’s definitely a significant draw. There are families that come back every year to see the same Santa,” Keating said. “It’s just a really important tradition as part of the overall holiday season and holiday experience, and I think that will continue to be the case.”

Store brought

Santa has historically been part of Neiman Marcus’s holiday strategy with special events scattered throughout the months leading up to Christmas. But last year, for the first time, NM hosted Santa in all 37 of its stores. Customers were able to take pics from a safe distance or via curbside car visit. This year, NM will bring masked Santa back into all stores with “more engagement moments” like reading hours.

The holiday experiences typically sell out, and there are already waitlists for the Breakfast with Santa events at NM around the country, the retailer told us. Marjon Zabihi Henderson, NM’s director of brand experiences and special events, said Santa always brings a spike in store traffic.

“It’s about finding new ways to elevate the Santa customer experience,” Henderson said.

  • The company began recruiting Santas as early as early spring.

But of course...Some of the Covid–era Santa practices are here to stay. Virtual visits, for example, give retailers more flexibility, but still provide opportunities to engage with consumers.

Macy’s is bringing Santa back to stores, but the visits will be “contactless” and by appointment only. The company is rolling out its second annual Macy's Santaland at Home, an online platform for children featuring Christmas games, interactive wish-list videos, and Santa selfies.

And, after witnessing the success of Santa in 2020, experiential toy store Camp will continue to embrace St. Nick as part of the company’s holiday strategy with a combination of digital and IRL events including video chats and in-store story time. Taking a page from the book of Macy's, Camp is introducing virtual holiday games and platforms this year.

Can I get a pic?

New Jersey’s American Dream, which is big on experiences—it has its own amusement parks, need we say more?—is hoping social media–friendly activations and out-of-the-box programming will help promote successful Santa moments and drive traffic.

One example is Santa on Ice, where people can skate and take pictures with the jolly man. (American Dream’s ice-skating rink is obviously an advantage here.) The company also set up colorful “photo walls” and immersive snowy scenes around the property to encourage consumers to think beyond just one Santa snapshot.

“Everyone’s phone is always out. We’re a cinematic property, and it does bring a lot of traffic to us,” Chief Creative Officer Ken Downing said. “With anything we do, we always think: How can the customer interact with this? How will it look through the lens of the phone? What will it look like when it ends up on Instagram and Facebook and TikTok?”

In the age of social media, Santas are selfie bait.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.