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Malls spend big on Santa but get payback all year long

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Finn Kirkwood, 5, meets Santa at  Bridgewater Commons.
Finn Kirkwood, 5, meets Santa at Bridgewater Commons. - (AARON HOUSTON)

By Mary Johnson for NJBIZ | Facebook | Twitter

Thomas Tolbert's work wardrobe is all custom.

He has five handmade suits done in his signature palette of red and white, with three wide belts to match. And he has two handcrafted pairs of boots: a brown one and a black one — with jingle bells bouncing down the side.

Tolbert's job is playing Santa at the Bridgewater Commons mall, propping wide-eyed children on his lap and asking them that all-important holiday question.

But the Georgia native would never call it "playing."

"People say, 'Do you play Santa?' No, I become Santa," Tolbert said. "It's my job to make you believe in Santa."

And where do people go to recapture that Christmas spirit? To Santa's holiday stomping ground: the mall.

Shopping centers across the Garden State have decked their malls with brightly lit holiday trees and scenes pulled straight from the North Pole, with cameos from elves, reindeer and even the underappreciated Mrs. Claus. Nowadays, families expect to combine their holiday shopping with a visit to that hefty harbinger of gifts. And pleasing customers is what it's all about.

At a time when shopping is done increasingly online, holiday displays — some costing as much as $2 million — draw customers into malls and shopping centers. That's good for the critical fourth quarter of sales — and for keeping shoppers coming back even after the season has passed.

And nothing brings them back year after year like a good Santa.

Tolbert is just that.

He has studied at the Professional Santa Claus School in Denver, taking a five-day course that Tolbert said is absolutely worth the investment. His hair and beard are 100 percent real and styled in signature Santa fashion 365 days a year. And Time magazine recently named him among the top 11 Santas in the country.

Tolbert didn't say how much he's paid, but it's enough to finance a stay at the Embassy Suites in Piscataway for the almost two months he spends at Bridgewater.

And work he does: From the first Friday in November to Christmas Eve, he sets up (work)shop across from the Pottery Barn in Bridgewater Commons — Thanksgiving is his one day off. And even on his break, when he locks eyes with children toddling through the mall, he stops, smiles and lumbers over to share a hug and join in a festive family photo.

Proximity to that kind of holiday cheer translates to immediate business for the stores nearest the display.

At Godiva, one of the stores ringing the holiday set at Bridgewater Commons, employee Michelle Castner said parents emerging from long lines at the Santa booth will often reward well-behaved children with a trip to the chocolate shop.

And parents of not-so-well-behaved children are known to purchase a few treats as bribes, she added.

"It definitely helps out (with business)," she said.

That effect ripples throughout the mall as a whole, said Amy Knorr, marketing manager for Bridgewater Commons.

"It's all about creating an experience for our shoppers," Knorr said. "Just trying to create that warm holiday spirit at the mall is really what the décor is about."

And designing that perfect holiday experience is an expensive art unto itself.

John Carter runs a company called Parker 3D in Scotch Plains, which designs holiday displays around the world.

"We build places for Santa to be at home," Carter said. "We make Santa happy."

Doing that can be pricey, Carter said. Although it varies depending on the venue and the design, holiday displays can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $2 million.

But Carter said his clients recognize that such an expense can be worthwhile.

"It's a really important time to establish traffic patterns," he said. "If you have a good feeling about a place during that time period, you're much more likely to come back again."

One of Carter's projects this season was the holiday display at the Outlet Collection at Jersey Gardens, which recently got a $30 million makeover.

"I think people saw that mall as a place you can shop for a discount but you didn't really want to hang around, so we tried to make it a place you'd want to linger," Carter said. "That's what you want."

So he gave the mall a more modern holiday display that still maintained a traditional feel.

And even before the end of the season, Carter said the mall has seen results. The Santa photo business is way up at Jersey Gardens, and he has heard that people are constantly stopping by the display and snapping pictures themselves.

"No one Christmas gift is right for every child and no one holiday set is right for every property," Carter said. "They've turned it into a destination, which is a pretty important traffic change."

Santa is a critical part of that equation.

Susan Mesco, who founded the Professional Santa Claus School 31 years ago, said it all comes from the inside.

"I can put a suit and makeup on anyone but that doesn't make them Santa — it just makes them a guy in a suit," Mesco said. "Until you can understand how Santa acts and how Santa reacts to children, you can't be Santa.

"Kids don't judge like adults do," she continued. "They don't care if you have a cheap suit and cotton balls for a beard; they just want to feel the magic."

Tolbert, the Bridgewater Santa, agreed.

"You need to believe, and you have to have hope, and you have to encourage little things to grow," he said.

"All Santas are wonderful, if they really believe."

Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson is a staff reporter covering midsized and growth companies, as well as women in business. Mary lived in Fla., Texas, Conn. and N.Y. before moving to N.J. with her husband and infant son. Email her at maryj@njbiz.com. She is @mjohns422 on Twitter. Read her blog, Breaking Glass.

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