Shoppers won't be the only ones shelling out big bucks this holiday season.
Area malls are spending tens of thousands of dollars on decorations and special events to put their customers in the Christmas buying spirit during what is far and away the biggest retailing time of the year.
In addition to having the omnipresent Santa Claus, malls are offering elaborate, often-themed displays; live musical and theatrical entertainment and local and national radio and television personalities to induce regular customers to spend more money and to lure new ones away from competing malls.
At the same time, they are offering their customers an opportunity to give to charities ranging from the Maryland Food Bank to the Kennedy Krieger Institute for disabled children.
"In the retailing world, most of the stores are made or broke at this time of year. It's important we put all of our customers in the holiday spirit," says Lori Marler, marketing director of Westview Mall in Catonsville.
"We do 30 to 32 percent of the year's business in November and December. It's critical for us to maximize that," adds Janice Biele, manager of sales and marketing at White Marsh Mall.
Several malls got a jump on the season by kicking off their Christmas displays and programs last weekend; most of the rest will have been put in place by this evening.
The malls won't say just how much they spend on their Christmas programs, which are often backed by extensive advertising campaigns. But an executive of the Becker Group, a Baltimore-based company that is the country's largest decorator of shopping centers, says large malls spend an average of between $125,000 and $175,000 on a Christmas decor package that can be used for three to six years.
"With the proliferation of shopping malls, each center tries to set itself apart from the rest and make itself more exciting," says Jeff Bell, executive vice president of the Becker Group. The company's hundreds of clients include a half-dozen local malls and Minnesota's giant Mall of America, which has spent a whopping $800,000 on its Snoopy-themed display for its inaugural Christmas.
The recession has not affected what malls spend one way or the other. "Budgets have not gotten any bigger, but they haven't gotten any smaller, either," says Mr. Bell.
Elements beyond the decorations are extra. Westview, for example, which has a "Sesame Street" holiday motif, will feature three Dec. 5 performances of songs and games by Loretta Long, who appears on the popular children's television show. Golden Ring Mall in Essex had a live "Tale of the Christmas Troll" at its opening last weekend, and will have a special Elf Camp with face-painting and children's entertainment on three weekends between now and Christmas. And Owings Mills Mall plans to use 125,000 feet of wrapping paper for its free gift wrapping service.
Despite the elaborate backdrops, most malls do not spend money on Santa Claus himself. In fact, for many retail centers, Santa doesn't cost, he pays. The malls contract with outside companies to provide Santas, then share in the proceeds from photos of kids taken on Santa's lap.
Just how much traffic and sales are generated by the holiday hoopla is a matter of some conjecture.
At White Marsh Mall, people "absolutely" come for the Christmas decorations and events, which this year will center around the theme of "a polar experience," says sales and marketing director Biele.
For the indoor parade throughout the mall that kicks off the Christmas season annually, families begin staking out their positions in mid-afternoon, she says.
Ironically, "That night is probably the worst business night of the year. People are here for the parade," Ms. Biele adds. The mall's hope is that those spectators will return as customers.
But Christopher Schardt, general manager of Towson Town Center -- which kicked off its season yesterday with a tree-lighting ceremony and this morning was holding the first of two Santa's breakfasts to benefit the Kennedy Institute -- says the effect of the events can't be measured.
"I don't think people are going to come to see the decorations but I hope they'll be pleased with what they see. People expect to be reminded of the holiday," says Mr. Schardt.
Unlike the suburban malls, where Christmas is king, the downtown Harborplace and the Gallery actually do more business in the summer months because of the seasonal appeal of the Inner Harbor than they do during the holiday season, says spokesperson Kate Delano. Even so, both locations will be decorated to the hilt with lights, trees and wreaths and will offer a full schedule of special events, many coordinated with the city's Office of Promotion, beginning with the arrival of Santa Claus at the conclusion of the annual Thanksgiving parade today.
"Part of what Harborplace has always stood for is special events, so the Christmas events are an extension of that. Of course, we want people to do their holiday shopping downtown," Ms. Delano says.
Concerts by school and community choirs are among the more popular events at Harborplace and the Gallery as well as at a number of suburban malls, some of which have extensive schedules of nightly entertainment. The concerts help fulfill the malls' growing social function as a latter-day town square as well as adding to their bottom lines.
"While the groups are singing, mom may peek in at Hecht's," says Lauri Altman, Golden Ring's marketing director.
At Owings Mills Mall, a Hanukkah concert will be part of a two-week holiday concert series. Santa will not arrive until Dec. 12 and for the first time will stroll throughout the mall, seeking out kids who want to see him, rather than staying in one place and having the kids come to him. The mall hopes the change, part of what it describes as its emphasis on customer service, will make it easier for parents to avoid yet one more holiday line.
"If people are feeling better and are not frustrated, they'll shop longer and spend more," says Laura Zulick, Owings Mills' marketing manager.