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How to get holiday shoppers into the mall — and keep them there

It’s "snowing" at Santa's Flight Academy at the Fair Oaks Mall, where twins Silas and Wyatt Frank, and their sister Stella, are taking it all in. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Stella Frank, age 5, clutched the letter she wrote to Santa and hoped he would grant her wish for a “dog baby.” Or, as they are otherwise known, a puppy.

Then she scanned her QR code, a matrix of black and white blocks containing the secret digital DNA of Stella’s personalized badge.

For the third year in a row, Stella had come to Santa’s Flight Academy, set in the North Pole and located between the Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret at the Fair Oaks Mall in Northern Virginia. It was 10 a.m. on a Monday in mid-November, but “Jingle Bell Rock” already streamed from an overhead speaker as shoppers made an early dent on their holiday gifting.

Stella looked up in amazement at Santa’s wonderland, which she could enter only by scanning a badge that contained her QR code, name and photo. As she made her way through, Stella stopped in front of a screen to get fitted for a proper flight suit. She stood in front of a camera and held her arms out, watching as a virtual suit popped up over her tiny frame.

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On another screen, Stella pushed a series of buttons to choose Santa’s best flight path. She walked through a room with fake snow falling from the ceiling. And as she reached the end and handed Santa her letter, her name and photo popped up on a screen showing who had made the Big Man’s “nice” list. (Santa keeps his “naughty” list out of view.)

All in all, the installation is “about more than just Santa,” said Ivan Frank, a spokesman for Taubman Centers, which owns and manages Fair Oaks Mall.

As he put it, it’s “a true experience.”

The holiday season is a Super Bowl of sorts for the retail industry. This year, the National Retail Federation expects sales in November and December to increase between 4.3 and 4.8 percent over 2017 results, to as much as $720.89 billion.

But stores, malls and shopping centers know the key to locking in shoppers doesn’t hinge only on keeping inventory in stock. They must also put on a halftime show — their time to entertain, to perform, to tingle shoppers’ senses with Santa’s flight school, falling snow, light installations, free food, yoga classes, cooking demos and more.

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That’s especially true when shoppers are projected to spend $124.1 billion online this holiday season, according to research by Adobe Analytics. Ultimately, what draws people from their homes — and keeps them in stores longer — isn’t just the need to shop. It’s the craving to feel something while they do it.

“It’s almost like opening night on Broadway,” said Michael Goldban, senior vice president of retail leasing at Brookfield Properties. “We’re performing. We want to put our best foot forward.”

This year, one of Brookfield’s New York City properties includes an ice rink featuring a show with Olympians. In the past, Brookfield has held two performances of “The Nutcracker” at the same shopping center, each of which could attract 3,000 people. It added two more performances to the lineup this year.

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Mall owners shoulder much of the responsibility for luring holiday shoppers. But Goldban said a big part of the push comes from a broader millennial culture that emphasizes experiences over stuff. If retailers can set up an “Instagram moment,” for example, Goldban said shoppers of any age group are more likely to spend, share the scene on social media and come back later in the season. According to one 2017 study, 72 percent of respondents said they have made fashion, beauty or style-related purchases after they saw a product promoted on Instagram. One in three respondents said they had used Instagram inside a retail store to help them decide on a purchase.

At Tysons Corner Center outside Washington, Mike Graham held down the fort at “Santa HQ,” an immersive, techy Christmas wonderland souped up by a partnership with HGTV. Visitors stand in front of a “Magic Mirror” that shows a virtual image of them dressed as an elf. They can hold a tablet up to icons along the walls and watch as elves appear on the screen and hand out presents. Families can buy photo packages starting at $39.99.

Graham has served as Tysons’s Santa for the past 30 years and said that for kids, the interactive stations have made standing in line to meet Santa part of the draw.

“It hasn’t changed my job,” Graham said. “Just the look of it; now we have HGTV here.”

At another end of the Tysons mall, people waited in line for hours on a recent weekend to play video games at the Nintendo Switch Holiday Experience. The holiday season pop-up includes a Super Smash Brothers game that doesn’t debut to the public until December, games that integrate with players’ own Pokémon Go accounts and a retail kiosk where shoppers can test out different gaming systems that may be on their wish lists.

Between Santa HQ and the Nintendo Experience, Tysons undoubtedly generates foot traffic that helps fuel mall sales during the holidays. And the experiences draw a diverse crowd: While parents and young children may turn out for photos with Santa, older teenagers and young adults may show up for an afternoon of nonstop Nintendo. Julie Luu, a manager for the mall’s Nintendo experience, said some people drove long distances just to play the games at Tysons.

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“If you’re going to drive three hours to come play, you’re going to hang out at the mall,” Luu said.

Analysts say these holiday experiences also shape shopping habits people will carry with them year-round. Frank, of Taubman Centers, would not say specifically how much Santa’s Flight Academy costs. But he said the company “proportionally” invests in its holiday season activities given how crucial this time of the year is for sales numbers.

“We are social beings, and we want to be with people,” Frank said. “Certainly, some of this is competing against e-commerce, but some is just competing to win the hearts and minds of our customers.”

The strategy seemed to work on Stella as she gazed up, wide-eyed, at Santa’s Flight Academy at the Fair Oaks Mall. Her mother, Dana Frank, had been won over, too: She promptly paid for copies of Stella’s photo with Santa and her young twin brothers.

Stella’s grandmother, Donna Johnstone, soon found another holiday stop. She bought Stella a small Christmas ornament from a kiosk placed about 20 feet from Santa’s Flight Academy.

“We just ran right into them!” Johnstone said with a smile.

To keep her young kids out of the house, Frank said her family would stick around the mall for as long as possible.

“We’re trying to get some shopping done,” Frank said, “the real way, not online!”

Behind her, children lined up to test out their virtual flight suits. “Jingle Bell Rock” continued on loop over the loud speaker. A screen told Santa that a young girl named Marie had made his nice list. And nestled between the Starbucks and the Victoria’s Secret at a mall in mid-November, it felt like Christmas.