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Malls revamp Santa experience to lure customers away from online shopping

Santa is a big part of the marketing mix for malls during the holiday period – the most crucial part of the calendar for retailers, and the most stressful for shoppers.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The rules for staying in Santa's good books – you'd better not pout, or cry – can be difficult for kids to obey diligently. And it's especially hard to be good, for goodness' sake, when waiting in an interminable lineup in a noisy mall to see the man himself.

Now, as brick-and-mortar malls face ever-greater competition from the speed and ease of online shopping, mall owners are attempting to make that experience a little more pleasant for harried families during the holidays. It's not just about Santa's Village – malls are working year-round to revamp the entire shopping experience, with improvements to food courts, mobile phone-charging stations, valet parking and multimillion-dollar facelifts – all to convince people to make the trip out to shop, rather than simply clicking over to Amazon or other online options.

And the holiday period – the most crucial part of the calendar for retailers, and the most stressful for shoppers – is a particularly important season for malls to get their marketing right. Santa is a big part of the marketing mix.

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"To wait in line for hours to spend three minutes with Santa, when there's a 50-50 chance that at the end of the wait a child is going to be crying when he sits on Santa's lap, it takes away from the experience," said Jason Anderson, senior vice-president of marketing at mall owner Cadillac Fairview Corp. "Santa in a mall has existed for decades, but it hasn't evolved much."

Cadillac Fairview began experimenting last year with allowing shoppers to prebook their Santa visit to skip the line at four of its malls, and this year it expanded that to 10 of its 20 shopping centre properties across Canada, including Richmond Centre in B.C., and Eaton Centre in Toronto. Oxford Properties Group Inc. has also begun offering a Santa "FastPass" to book online at centres including Upper Canada Mall in Newmarket, Ont., and Scarborough Town Centre in Toronto. At Yorkdale Shopping Centre – a high-end mall in Toronto – just like at a trendy downtown restaurant, shoppers can check in with an elf hostess and receive a text message when their time with Santa is approaching.

"You know what it's like. You've only got so much time, and if you've got small children, there's a time when they are just done.We'd rather have those families out shopping, and they'd rather be doing something other than waiting in a lineup," said John Giddings, Oxford's vice-president of retail.

For the second year in a row, Oxford is also opening early on selected Sundays to families with autistic children, to allow them to see Santa in a quieter environment before the mall is open. It's an initiative that began two years ago at Southcentre Mall in Calgary, and has now expanded to all of Oxford's malls. Hillcrest Mall in Richmond Hill, Ont., moved its Santa's Village entirely – from centre court to a former Laura store that closed – so that it can close the doors and offer quiet time to any families who need it, regardless of the hour.

Other malls have opened up the portrait session beyond just children: Centres such as Willowbrook in Langley, B.C., and RioCan's Burlington Mall in Ontario offer special times to take pets' portraits with the man in red.

Another major mall owner, Ivanhoé Cambridge has pulled back on Santa prebooking to evaluate how to do it best and bring it back in the future. But the company is using technology to change the experience. At Metropolis at Metrotown in Burnaby, B.C., it has installed iPads that allow shoppers to control the snowflake patterns on a 21-metre digital "light curtain." For people waiting in line for Santa, there are interactive screens so children can play games.

At the company's Vaughan Mills mall north of Toronto, an animated elf appears on a digital screen to tell the story of a "magical key" used by Santa to gain access to homes without chimneys; Santa presents each family with their own key to remind them of the visit, accompanied by a light show on the ceiling of his house.

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"It's taking that whole Santa experience to the next level," said Belinda Davidson, vice-president of strategic marketing and operations at Ivanhoé Cambridge. "We're always trying to give reasons for shoppers to come to the mall and have an experience, beyond just the retail mix."

Malls are also testing out other holiday features. While gift-wrapping services have been a standard feature for many years, this season Cadillac Fairview is putting up digital screens at its Rideau Centre mall in Ottawa and Carrefour Laval in Greater Montreal. Shoppers can put a present into the workshop, choose their wrapping paper and watch as fuzzy animated characters wrap the gift. A door then opens with the finished present.

Lounges are becoming more popular. Hillcrest has created a "Holiday Haven," with a coat check, gift-wrap services and comfortable seating. Oxford-owned Square One in Mississauga has set up valet parking and a sponsored Scotia Life Financial Holiday Lounge beginning on Friday, also with wrapping, seating, and food and beverages for purchase. Ivanhoé Cambridge's Guildford Town Centre in Surrey, B.C., is offering a "one-stop gift shop," with reserved parking spaces, where shoppers can quickly pick up online purchases or browse a list of suggested gifts for people such as a child's teacher or a neighbour.

These holiday promotions are part of malls' year-round efforts to draw in customers who might be wooed to online shopping. Many centres have begun offering mobile charging stations and better dining options, and have invested in updating the look of their spaces. Ivanhoé Cambridge's Southgate mall in Edmonton this year partnered with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to present 3-D replicas of some of the artist's famous paintings in its mall. It counted rougly 12,000 visitors to that exhibit, some from out of town.

Oxford's properties are improving food courts with real plates and cutlery. Square One has spent $480-million since 2013 on revamping its space and adding a luxury wing for retailers such as Holt Renfrew and Kate Spade, and has seen sales increase.

"We've made it our mandate to create exclusive or one-of-a-kind experiences, and the lounge is definitely part of that," said Toni Holley, Square One's marketing director.

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Online shopping is still a relatively small share of retail in Canada. Research firm eMarketer forecasts that this year, e-commerce will account for nearly 6 per cent of total retail sales. But it is growing. According to research from Google Inc. last year, 21 per cent of Canadian holiday shoppers intended to research products in-store before buying online. And online also fuels their brick-and-mortar behaviour: The same study showed that 54 per cent of Canadians research products online before buying in-store. To respond to that trend, last month Cadillac Fairview introduced free WiFi in all of its malls.

"Our belief is e-commerce isn't going to kill all malls, but it will have a significant impact on B and C [tier] malls," Mr. Anderson said. "Consumers have choice, and we need to ensure we develop our shopping experiences."

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