Retailers looking to get Americans off e-commerce sites and into physical stores this holiday season may be relying on Santa Claus more than ever.
Department stores, such as Kohl's, have struggled to bring post-Thanksgiving shoppers into their brick-and-mortar locations so far this year. A handful of big-box behemoths, including Walmart, Target and Best Buy, gobbled up the lion's share of the record 190 million shoppers in physical stores during the Friday-to-Monday sales rush, according to the National Retail Federation.
Online shopping has eclipsed purchases in physical stores for the past few years, so malls and department store chains are increasingly marketing photos with Santa to get customers to come to their stores.
"We can't go on Amazon and put our child on Amazon's knee and put a beard on it," said Amanda Nicholson, professor of retail practice at Syracuse University's Whitman School of Management. "Getting your child's photo with Santa is a generational thing to do. It's a compelling reason for malls to do it."
Nicholson said Millennial audiences value spending money on experiences more than purchasing consumer goods. That's why mall Santas and related attractions are some of the few remaining advantages that physical stores have over digital marketplace giants like Amazon.
As a result, Santa is in higher demand this year.
"We can never fulfill all the requests we're getting just because we don't have enough Santas," Megan Price, director of customer experience at GigSalad, a digital platform used to book entertainers for private parties and events, told CNN Business.
The online company, which was founded in 2007, offers more than 600 categories for entertainment and event services. The company said Santa is its most-requested attraction by far. GigSalad's confirmed bookings for Santa have risen 128% over the last four years, according to Price.
The bulk of the company's clients are women ages 25 to 50 looking to book a Santa for family or community holiday parties, usually at a rate of about $200 an hour. Corporate clients, including Boost Mobile and Nordstrom, have also used the site and its smartphone app to book appearances at stores and events across the country.
"The number of Santas we have on the site has grown about 102% over the last four years,' Price said. "People come every year and say they want to book a Santa. Usually we run out fairly quickly."
Santas are big money
Santas earn anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000 total for store and mall appearances during the holidays, according to Santa performer Ed Taylor, owner and operator of the Santa Claus Conservatory, an online school for Santas.
"There's these amazing black swan malls out there busy from morning to night," Taylor told CNN Business. "They have Santa houses, photos, videos for the families. It becomes essentially a destination."
One such venue is Mall at Short Hills in Millburn, New Jersey, which unveiled its Santa's Flight Academy promotion once again on November 7. The colorful 3,000-square-foot holiday-themed playland lets children take pictures with Santa, try on virtual flight suits, interact with Santa's sleigh, and participate in a snowfall dance party.
From Thursday through December 24, the American Dream mega mall in East Rutherford, New Jersey is transforming part of its space into a "winter wonderland" where parents and their children can take photos with Santa for free.
Macy's stores in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Philadelphia have continued their own "Santaland" promotions again this year, a tradition that started at the company's famed 34th Street Manhattan location in 1980.
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