Every year about this time, retailers open the book and turn back to the lessons of Christmas past to find new ways to draw in the ever-elusive holiday shopper.
The first lesson of holidays past for bricks-and-mortar retail is to create something that will get people off their couches and into the stores. The children’s photo with Santa Claus is a given for most families every holiday season, but the real goal is to draw people into the stores to shop, said Ann Taylor, senior vice president for Midway Companies in Houston.
“It’s about creating that wonderful memory, that family experience,” Taylor said. “Obviously, we’re also concerned about how you translate that into going into the shops and shopping.”
So Midway properties have events, Instagram-friendly locations and pop-up stores. CityCentre’s Glisten festivities on Nov. 18 on Houston’s west side included Santa’s entrance, a tree lighting and five feet of snow. For a $20 donation to Kids’ Meals—Meals on Wheels, participants picked up a commemorative wine glass for the afternoon Sip and Shop.
This is about creating a shopping experience, one that feels special and unique, Taylor said. Over on Green Street in downtown Houston, Midway also has set up a pop-up shop make(her) for a 13-month run of three unique women-owned businesses.
“We are still very much going to have the West Elms and H&Ms and the big national brands, but we’re also going to have those unique items you can’t find anywhere,” Taylor said. “People want to know the story behind the items they buy, to have an emotional attachment.”
Drawing holiday retail traffic is not simply the job of retailers and developers. Property managers and city leaders often are involved, too. Cyndi Lessard of CBRE, who manages Sunset Valley Village just outside Austin and retail in a number of high-end apartment properties inside Austin, said holiday season preparations begin as early as August, when she unpacks the holiday decorations.
Those decorations don’t go up until the second week of November. The property manager’s job, even down to the smallest shopping center, involves security and traffic control, as well as at least one high-profile event to kick off the holiday shopping season. At Sunset Valley Village, that event is co-hosted with the city the first weekend of December and includes Santa Claus’ arrival, a remote with a local radio station and retailer coupons for those who bring gifts to “stuff the bus” for underprivileged children.
While many major retailers have given up the pursuit of midnight sales heading into Black Friday, Lessard said plenty of shoppers are still interested in bricks-and-mortar stores. People still want to walk into a liquor store or pet store and scan the shelves for purchases.
“We definitely still see plenty of traffic during the holiday shopping season,” Lessard said.
Another lesson retailers have learned from the ghosts of Christmases past is to join the online shopping game, said Ana Smith, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. Most major retailers now offer free shipping of online orders, and many will provide easy pick-up service.
“Retailers, obviously, want consumers to be in their stores for hours and hours and hours,” Smith said. “But the way that consumers are programmed now, they want to be in and out as quickly as possible, and they want to be able to get the things they need as quickly as they can without it being a hassle.”
But, of course, retailers have to get shoppers off of their computers and through their door. Centro San Antonio, San Antonio’s downtown tax-increment district, has rolled out OPEN this holiday season. Property owners and retailers offer local entrepreneurs a no-cost short-term lease in vacant downtown property. Current vendors, open the weekends of Dec. 8-10 and Dec. 15-17, include Camel Corps and Huipil Markets.
And then there’s tradition. Austin’s Armadillo Christmas Bazaar may have competitors, but it still remains one of the city’s most unique holiday traditions. The arts and craft festival began back in 1976 to give the open-air artists selling their wares on the Drag a warm place to stay during December. It also gave Bruce Willenzik and the fellow members of the kitchen staff at the Armadillo World Headquarters a paycheck during a slow month.
“It was basically the kitchen staff plotting to determine how we were going to save the Armadillo, economically,” Willenzik said. “It was going to increase our cultural reach and it was going to create a cash flow for payroll in winter.”
The most Austin of Austin bazaars, which is now more arts than crafts, continues to this day. That’s given Willenzik, the executive producer, 42 holiday seasons to groom and promote local artists. Willenzik learned early the better the artists and their presentations, the more loyal his audience has become.
“Now we have a national audience that comes in to shop,” Willenzik said. “We have artists that have been with us long term, but you always have new stuff. You always have something exciting. We have artists that spend an entire year putting together products for our show.”
The bottom line on retail is that better artists draw more people and more people draw better artists. “You can’t have one without the other,” Willenzik said.