Malls across the country use special Santa experiences to bring shoppers back to physical stores

by Editorial Team

Santa Claus is coming to town, and he’s bringing his virtual reality headset with him.

With more people than ever shopping online, physical shopping centers have turned to a familiar ally to get people to malls: Santa. But this isn’t your older brother’s mall Santa.

Saint Nick now comes fully equipped with augmented reality experiences, VR elf outfits, Instagram-friendly photo ops and many more bells and jingles for North Pole visitors to enjoy.

“Children today grow up with so much technology, it’s the way they understand the world,” Katie Walsh, Senior Marketing Manager at Fashion Outlets of Chicago, told the Daily News. “We wanted to create an interactive, immersive holiday experience that they would enjoy.”

Fashion Outlets of Chicago’s Santa HQ debuted in 2015 and has seen an increase in visitors each year, according to Walsh. The outlet is one of 15 different shopping centers across the country owned and operated by Macerich that are using Santa HQ to convince shoppers to get off the couch and onto Santa’s lap.

Even the in-person encounter with St. Nicholas is more 21st century than 4th century. Santa HQ features a virtual reality “Magic Mirror” that allows visitors to see themselves as one of Santa’s elves and change their elf outfits. It also includes an augmented reality tour of Santa’s North Pole observatory and a “Naughty or Nice O’Meter” among its attractions before the kids make it to Santa himself for their photo.

Santa HQ draws long lines on weekends and close to Christmas, but there’s a 2019 solution to that, too, as Fashion Outlets of Chicago offers a “Fast Pass” that Santa’s visitors can purchase online. And while young kids have little trouble with technology that would send their parents spinning in circles, they do struggle with one of the experiences.

“The kids are always very nervous if they’ll land on the naughty list,” Walsh said. “We ask them which list they think they’ll be on, and some, I’ve gotta say it’s usually the little boys, are nervous they’ll land on that naughty list.” She added that the meter works using “very impressive technology” to tell which kids have been naughty and nice.

Macerich isn’t the only group fighting online shopping with tech-savvy Santas. Multiple properties worked with DreamWorks to create DreamPlace, a 3D display adventure complete with a virtual obstacle course that sends visitors on a mission to find Santa Claus, who has “disappeared.” More modest malls allow Santa’s visitors to receive their official photos with Jolly Old St. Nick via text for easy posting online.

The reason malls are creating mini-North Poles is simple: people love Santa Claus. Nearly 25% of all mall shoppers have their child take a picture with Santa, according to NBC News. And every person in the door is another person who’s likely to splash some cash, whether its at the food court, the Brookstone, the Auntie Anne’s or anywhere else.

All thanks to the magic of Santa.

“The best moment for me is watching the kids come around the corner and see Santa Claus for the first time,” Walsh said. “Their faces light up, and their cheeks get bright red. They sort of have this nervous but excited energy, because he’s such an important person in their lives and they’re seeing him for the first time. It’s just so fun to be a part of.”


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