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Big-Name Malls Pin Holiday Hopes on Experiential Hail Mary

Top mall operators in the U.S. are trying to get creative in not only bringing shoppers into their stores, but also in keeping them safe in the era of social distancing, even as daily average U.S. Covid-19 deaths have crested the “frightening peak” of 2,200 seen in April and confirmed infections topped 200,000 daily, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

Still, 57 percent of consumers plan to do most of their holiday shopping in stores, according to CloudResearch data published Wednesday, though 40 percent say they’ll do a little or a lot less purchasing at malls and shops relative to previous years. Store-based operators face an uphill battle this year as consumers have a rash of convenient means of gathering gifts and securing festive decor that doesn’t involve them leaving the safety of their homes. The mass migration to digital commerce has already strained UPS networks, forcing the logistics giant to pause package pickups at some big-name retailers.

No matter how you slice it, in-person retail is up a creek, experiential or not. “This is just not a time for people to be leisurely hanging out with strangers anywhere,” said Forrester Research vice president, principal analyst and retail expert Sucharita Kodali. Offering personal concierge services and functioning as a low- or no-contact hub for item returns is “probably the best that malls can do now,” she added.

Malls are still hoping to salvage a socially distant season, however. Westfield, the premium mall operator, has debuted a scavenger hunt experience at 22 shopping centers across the U.S. with interactive augmented reality (AR), while New Jersey’s American Dream mega-shopping center is rolling out a series of initiatives it hopes will bring the merry this month.

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Westfield’s “Holiday Hunt” in partnership with Coffee Labs and AR software company 8th Wall is active until Christmas Eve and can be experienced on any smartphone without requiring the user to download an app. Shoppers can scan a QR code with their phone’s camera to immediately access the experience.

After scanning the QR code, the scavenger hunt takes shoppers on an adventure to uncover 10 virtual Christmas-themed characters who are hiding at secret locations throughout the shopping center. Participants can scan the code at each location to discover dancing gingerbread people, snowmen, a Santa Claus face filter, a Nutcracker, reindeer and more—each providing the opportunity for taking selfies and videos.

Consumers who find all 10 characters receive exclusive promotions and offers to redeem at participating shops.

“While this season may look a bit different, we still wanted to create experiences that not only make it fun and festive to shop, but keep health and safety top of mind,” said Anthony Sion, senior vice president, new business development at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, owner of Westfield shopping centers in the U.S. “The Holiday Hunt was developed to entertain as well as deliver offers from our retail partners over the holidays in a safe and socially-distant environment.”

Visitors to the American Dream megamall and entertainment complex have the opportunity to experience the month-long “The Heart of the Holidays” series of events and activities that will be held every day through Christmas Eve. Kids can write a letter to Santa at Elf Workshops, decorate ornaments or color some pictures, enjoy Music Mondays featuring local musical performances, show off during Holiday Sweater Saturdays and more.

Beyond the events, the experience will include festive backdrops including a Winter Garden Court within the center filled with more than 500 poinsettias, 550 snowflakes hung over the mall’s ice rink, more than 100 holiday trees and 12 photo booths.

American Dream is providing an online Holiday Gift Guide to accompany the series, featuring gifts and stocking stuffers for sale throughout the mall, curated by the shopping center’s chief creative officer and former Neiman Marcus executive Ken Downing. The megamall also is offering “Holiday Dream Kits” online that are filled not only with toys and collectibles, but also tickets to the complex’s attractions, including DreamWorks Water Park, Nickelodeon Universe and Angry Birds Not So Mini Golf Club.

The 3-million-square-foot complex, developed by Triple Five Group, will operate with extended hours this month, and will be closed on Christmas Day.

Meanwhile, from Nov. 20 to Jan. 3, Galleria Dallas is offering an immersive “Snowday” photo experience, allowing holiday shoppers to reserve spots ahead of time and navigate an imaginative wonderland of festive photo ops, enchanted rooms and nostalgic moments. Design firm Bayer Brothers Sets collaborated with photography company Motus to build out the experience.

The Galleria Dallas shopping mall is offering an immersive “Snowday” photo experience this holiday season.
Galleria Dallas is offering an immersive “Snowday” photo experience. Bayer & Motus LLC

The one-way tour through more than 11 holiday-themed rooms takes roughly 45 minutes, and features nearly a dozen photo opportunities—including six sets equipped with integrated cameras and lighting. These photos are professionally processed and sent directly to a consumer’s phone for instant social sharing.

And on Dec. 1, the Mall of America in Minneapolis launched a virtual guided and interactive holiday experience for families called The Candy Cane Institute. The mall partnered with design firm Hotopp Associates, which is the creative force behind The Candy Cane Institute, to deploy the project.

Hotopp initially founded the Candy Cane Institute concept in 1972, but is bringing it to the Mall of America for the first time virtually during the 2020 holiday season. The mall is allowing guests to virtually tour its facilities (located in the North Pole) with Santa and his elves.

An elf prepares to guide the viewers through the virtual tour at the Mall of America shopping center.
An elf prepares to guide the viewers through the virtual tour at the Mall of America. Mall of America

“The holiday season needs more magic than ever this year, which is why we were thrilled that the Candy Cane Institute chose Mall of America to help bring this virtual experience to our guests all over the world,” said Jill Renslow, executive vice president of Mall of America. “At Mall of America, we’ve always been guided by data-driven information to create a better guest experience, so we appreciate the efforts of the Candy Cane Institute and look forward to welcoming families to this new online holiday experience.”

The goal is for successful research from the virtual CCI experience to help bring the Candy Cane Institute live to Mall of America next year.

Super Saturday: boom or bust?

Meanwhile, Super Saturday—which this year falls on Dec. 19—is slated to be the season’s second-biggest shopping day for brick and mortar, despite falling short of previous years’ turnout, Sensormatic Solutions said Wednesday.

“We’ve seen more dispersed shopping patterns over the last few months as more consumers shop on weekdays while they work from home and try to avoid larger crowds on weekends,” said Brian Field, senior director of global retail consulting for Sensormatic Solutions, whose tools monitor footfall in physical locations. “While Saturdays are still the biggest shopping day of the week, it has flattened considerably during the pandemic.”

“This year’s Super Saturday is almost a week before Christmas Day, which falls on a Friday, leaving more time for in-store shopping the week before the big day,” Field added, noting that the Monday through Wednesday period ibumping up against “Christmas Eve all play prominent roles (#6, #8 and #4) in our list of top busiest days.”

Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.