Retail Unwraps the Charm

Shoppers rushed past a television showing the Macy's-themed classic
Shoppers rushed past a television showing the Macy's-themed classic "Miracle on 34th Street" in the Westfield Montgomery Mall Macy's on Tuesday. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 16, 2006

The black-and-white film "Miracle on 34th Street" began playing on the double-sided plasma television at Macy's in Westfield Montgomery Mall the day after Thanksgiving. It has been looping endlessly ever since.

"It is such a great part of Macy's heritage," store manager Richard LeCours said. "It puts people in a great spirit of Christmas."

The retailer also gave away DVDs of the movie, which tells the story of a precocious child who finds a real Santa in residence at Macy's flagship store in New York. It's just one marketing tactic that the company is using to forge a connection with customers during the intensely competitive holiday shopping season. With just a little more than a week left before Christmas, retailers are in full assault mode.

"It is without question the most important campaign of the year that retailers do," said Mya Frazier, retail reporter for Advertising Age, a trade publication.

The holiday season is crucial to retailers' success because it accounts for about 20 percent of their yearly sales. Starting in November, and sometimes earlier, retailers deluge shoppers with advertisements as they vie for their share of customers' wallets. Such heavy-handed campaigns give retailers a chance to reinforce their brand identity -- their personalities, if you will -- or even test out new ones.

Much of the goal is to stay in the forefront of shoppers' minds. Despite the millions of dollars spent on holiday television ads, for example, only about 26 percent of consumers can recall one that they particularly liked, according to a survey released yesterday by BIGresearch for the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, a trade group. About 17 percent said TV ads influence where they shop, though that number jumps to more than a quarter among young adults.

Phil Rist, vice president of strategy for BIGresearch, a consumer research firm, said the real traffic drivers are the less-glamorous coupons and newspaper inserts. More than one-third of shoppers said each factored into their shopping decisions. And 29 percent said recommendations from family and friends sway them.

Still, Rist said, many shoppers have come to expect elaborate holiday advertisements from retailers to help set the season's tone.

"The TV commercials tend to be more of the feel-good branding versus a call to action to come see me today and buy something," he said.

Of those surveyed by BIGresearch who had a favorite holiday TV ad, Target stole the show for the second year in a row. Wal-Mart ranked second, with Best Buy and Macy's following in third and fourth place, respectively. Other retailers that ranked include JC Penney, Big Lots, Kmart, Old Navy, Kohl's and Gap.

Target's fast-paced ads home in on its bull's-eye logo in a flurry of wintry scenes of people opening gifts and laughing. It ends with trees bathed in white and adorned with bull's-eye ornaments.

But the retailer took an even more unconventional approach to decorating its stores, contracting designer Tord Boontje to create ethereal red and white snowflakes that hang from the ceilings and even decorate its plastic bags. At Union Square Park in New York City, it has created an interactive light display of people, animals, snowflakes, flowers, stars and, of course, bull's-eyes that will run through Dec. 26. And last month, it commissioned stuntman David Blaine to escape from a gyroscope hanging 50 feet above Times Square as a benefit for the Salvation Army -- which he managed to do just in time for the retailer's Thanksgiving weekend sale.

The campaign underscores Target's position as a low-priced but trendy retailer willing to push the envelope. Not only did it bring Boontje in this holiday, it introduced a large teal-colored peacock feather Christmas tree, in addition to the more traditional faux fir. Target is famous for its collaborations with designers, notably Isaac Mizrahi and Michael Graves, to create chic goods.

"Target is a big winner," said Mike Gatti, executive director of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association. "They've always been a big leader in being out there on the edge with their ads and their commercials."

Wal-Mart, on the other hand, is busy reshaping itself. Last year, its star-studded commercials featured hip-hop diva Beyonce Knowles, tweener heartthrob Jesse McCartney and country singing sensation Garth Brooks. They seemed to be as much about the celebrities as about selling. The word "Christmas" was banned in favor of the generic "holidays."

But as the retailer has struggled to appeal to higher-end customers, who may shop at Wal-Mart for necessities like toilet paper but not dolman-sleeve tops, it has retreated to more familiar ground. It has slashed prices on key holiday items such as toys and electronics. Earlier this month, it fired a flashy top marketing executive hired this year following reports that she had breached the company's stringent ethics policy and clashed with its corporate culture.

This holiday season's commercials are about ordinary families embroiled in humorous holiday drama, such as a bumbling man trying to impress his significant other's father. There are subtle references to Wal-Mart's vaunted low prices.

The retailer has also reinstated the word "Christmas" in its marketing after protest from religious groups over the use of the generic "holiday" last year. Meanwhile, it has been aggressive in its print ad circulars, increasing the number from five to eight this season. One is expected to come out just before Christmas filled with items under $10.

"We want to make price matter," said John Fleming, Wal-Mart's chief marketing officer.

Macy's is staying away from focusing on promoting sales in its television spots. The ads feature a new recording of the Beatles song "From Me to You" and showcase store merchandise.

"This is not a price-based campaign," Macy's spokeswoman Elina Kazan said. "We want to be the destination . . . for seasonal gifts for the entire family."

The retailer has had to walk a fine line this season between balancing its holiday traditions with those of the regional department store chains it acquired when it merged with the former May Department Stores last year. In Philadelphia, it has maintained a popular Christmas light show and holiday village from departed department stores. It brought back Marshall Fields' signature Frango mints to appease Chicagoans, and the candies are now sold at Macy's across the country.

LeCours, the Macy's store manager at Montgomery Mall, said playing "Miracle on 34th Street" in the store was his idea, a way to help Washington area shoppers feel connected to an old tradition. He has seen many customers stop to watch the film, at least for a few moments.

"The ad campaign sort of comes to life in the store," he said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company