Holiday Retail Windows, Old School Customer Engagement

Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. Photo by Matt Kiefer

The future of retail is a pretty hot topic, with an interest largely driven by serious concerns. The term “retail apocalypse” gets between 4,000-6,000 Internet searches every month. With major retailers like Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Sears and Kmart closing more than 5,000 stores in 2017, the sweeping changes brought about by the Internet and Amazon are starting to look like the Chicxulub asteroid. Dinosaurs aren’t going to make it. Adapt or die.

To that end, retail businesses — as well as shopping malls in general — are seriously rethinking how they operate and present themselves. Kids today have cell phones. They don’t need to go to the mall to meet other kids and enjoy a break from their parents. And millennials just don’t shop as much as previous generations.

The newest attempt to capture the attention of shoppers is focused on experiences, making the store into a destination, not just a place to make a purchase.

Apple is renaming its stores “town squares”. Some of them have trees.

Samsung’s 837 store doesn’t actually sell anything, unless you count food in the cafe.

Urban Outfitters has acquired a successful pizza chain, and is considering the idea of putting them inside OU stores, because it’s easy to buy goods online, but “if you want to eat at the hot new restaurant, you have to leave your living room.”

Nordstrom Local has no clothing racks. It’s set up to provide concierge level service, catered to a customer’s specific needs.

This idea of a store as an experience may seem like a big gamble, but one time-honored tradition suggests that it’s a successful approach: Christmas window displays.

Macy’s Christmas window in New York, 1917 or 1918

Macy’s started the tradition in New York in the early 1870s. This date coincides with the increased availability of large glass plates, for big inviting store windows. The first animated window displays appeared in 1899.

Initially the window displays were straight up product promotions, aimed at tempting passersby, probably moreso if they were shoppers with children. The displays have been animated for more than a century.

But starting in 1938 with Lord & Taylor, holiday store windows started to take on a more abstract nature. Modern windows now rarely serve as a direct promotion of the store’s wares. They seem much more like the amusements provided to keep park attendees happy while they wait in line for rides at Disneyland. When retail stores depend on holiday sales to make up a quarter of their annual revenue, it may seem like an odd decision. Still, the windows draw massive crowds every year.

Macy’s Window Five on Herald Square depicts ‘holiday travel’, with animated boats and trains. It takes a team of up to 200 people most of the year to plan each season’s new window display.

Along 34th Street, the windows depict scenes from the animated video “Yes Virginia”.

If there’s any question as to the effectiveness of these decorations, Macy’s estimates that as many as 10,000 people per hour pass by the windows. Research firm NPD estimates that decorated windows make an impact on holiday purchases 24 percent of the time. But even if not, it’s a well executed campaign to build branding and loyalty.

In addition to Macy’s, a number of retail businesses in New York take part in extravagant window displays every November and December, including Sak’s, Barney’s, Lord & Taylor, Henry Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany’s, and Bloomingdale’s.

“Given the inherent abstraction of digital retail, there’s an increasing attraction to actual and physical experience. It’s rooted in memory and simple pleasures, like delight and surprise, especially important emotions during the festive season.”
— Linda Fargo, Senior VP at Bergdorf Goodman

Lord & Taylor

Lord & Taylor

Lord & Taylor incorporates at least a few products into their displays.

The phenomenon is popular enough that many sites publish lists of the best windows to visit during the holiday season, even a map of where to find them.

“Window displays, and holiday windows in particular, are really effective in helping brands elevate themselves beyond a transactional experience and remind people of the wonders of shopping.”
— Nancy Hansell, senior strategist at Siegel+Gale

Creating Your Own Holiday Display

If you’re running a retail business, chances are you don’t have a six-figure budget available for holiday decorations in your window. But as of today, it’s one more week until Christmas, and you have a great opportunity to take advantage of everyone who postponed their shopping until well past any guaranteed shipping dates. What can you do to make your shop the obvious destination for anyone who still needs a gift?

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