Mall San­tas get high-tech makeover

Shows, games de­signed to lure back shop­pers

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY JOSEPH PISANI

NEW YORK | Hop on a vir­tual sleigh ride to the North Pole. Stand on the “Naughty or Nice O’Me­ter.” Snap a selfie and see your face on a danc­ing elf.

The Santa ex­pe­ri­ence has got­ten a makeover as many malls in­stall shows and games they hope will lure shop­pers who are buy­ing more on­line.

About 40 malls in the U.S. and one in Lon­don have the high-tech Santa dis­plays, most of them lo­cated near ma­jor cities that tend to house pricier stores. Tak­ing pho­tos on Santa’s lap costs about $30 and up, about the same as at other malls, but most of the malls say peo­ple can walk through with­out pur­chas­ing any­thing.

“It was a half-hour of en­ter­tain­ment that was free,” says Katie Mass, who took her twin daugh­ters through Santa’s Flight Academy, a 3,000-square-foot setup at The Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey.

She had gone to the mall to re­turn some dresses, but had to stop when her 2-year olds saw the spec­ta­cle. “They started run­ning,” says the stay-at-home mom from West­field, New Jersey.

The girls tapped touch screens, pulled levers and watched as flight suits were fit vir­tu­ally over their bod­ies on a screen. The fi­nal stop was a two-story tall en­closed sleigh that dropped fake snow upon them. One girl made snow an­gels on the floor while her sis­ter danced un­der the col­or­ful lasers. “It was ex­trav­a­gant and well done,” says Ms. Mass.

Malls are hop­ing the over-the-top Santa vis­its re­mind peo­ple what brick-and-mor­tar stores can offer. They’re in­creas­ingly try­ing to offer spe­cial ex­pe­ri­ences as they com­pete with on­line ri­vals, says Howard Davi­d­owitz, chair­man of New York-based re­tail con­sult­ing group Davi­d­owitz & As­so­ci­ates.

“The par­ents love it, the kids love it and Ama­zon can’t do it,” says Mr. Davi­d­owitz.

Santa’s Flight Academy was de­vel­oped by mall operator Taub­man Cen­ters Inc., which spent two years on the idea. Af­ter test­ing it last year at The Mall of San Juan in Puerto Rico, the com­pany rolled it out to 11 other Taub­man malls this year, re­plac­ing a low-tech ice palace that had housed Santa for years. Like other malls with elab­o­rate Santa sets, Taub­man de­clined to say how much it spent on Santa’s Flight Academy.

Guy Perry, a man­ager of a Dis­ney Store at Taub­man’s West­farms mall in West Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut, cred­ited this year’s “great” store traf­fic to Santa’s Flight Academy. Kids come into the store and tell him how they helped Santa take flight.

“It is get­ting a lot of good re­views,” says Mr. Perry. An old-school Santa dis­play got the boot at Queens Cen­ter in New York as the mall this year in­stalled Santa HQ, a set spon­sored by cable TV chan­nel HGTV.

As kids stand on the “Naughty or Nice O’Me­ter,” they can watch their names pop up on Santa’s “Nice List” screen. In an­other room they can take a selfie and see them­selves as danc­ing elves. In the last room, they’re handed tablets that use aug­mented re­al­ity tech­nol­ogy to make it ap­pear as if car­toon elves are pop­ping out of the walls and pack­ing gifts. The en­tire set and trees put on a light show ev­ery 20 min­utes that is syn­chro­nized with hol­i­day mu­sic.

Quite a dif­fer­ence from last year’s Santa setup: A couch and some Christ­mas trees.

“It’s Santa-meets-21st-cen­tury-tech­nol­ogy,” says John Scaturro, a mar­ket­ing man­ager for the mall.

Queens Cen­ter’s owner, Mac­erich Co., first in­stalled Santa HQ at some malls two years ago. This year, that ex­panded to 15 malls from 10. As of Novem­ber, sales of pho­tos with Santa at Queens Cen­ter nearly tripled from last year, says Mr. Scaturro.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Natalia Escalona (left) and her brother Jeremiah, inside the “Ad­ven­ture to Santa,” a DreamWorks DreamPlace ex­pe­ri­ence at a Ge­or­gia mall.

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