Deck The Halls

Decorators weigh in on the ghost of Christmas past and how to tackle 2021

Rounding off a year like no other, Christmas 2020 for retail destinations was, of course, far from business as usual. It still feels almost impossible to imagine that the shops were actually open in November and December as we remains in essential-only retail ghost towns for at least another month.

But, despite everything, the industry made the most of it: grottos went ahead, decorations festooned high streets and shopping malls, and the shoppers came out in their masked, somewhat-muted numbers.

As the vaccine rolls out and the Government has given us tentative hopes that Christmas 2021 will be an occasion to look forward to for bricks and mortar retail. Those in the business of delivering the magic of Christmas to consumers weigh in on how they made it work last year, plans for this year, and how landlords can support the Christmas decoration industry.

(Image: Christmas Creation’s Design at Hay’s Galleria. Photo credit: Christopher Willan)

Adapt to survive

With retail destinations making plans for Christmas at the beginning of the year, going into lockdown last March threw a very complicated spanner in the works. For mall decorators Christmas Creations, the beginning of the year started with positive enquiries and growth. The team were spurred on with new ideas and concepts from their annual visit to Christmasworld in Frankfurt. However, things came to a dramatic halt as Covid hit and tenders and proposals were put on hold.

Alex Waters, creative director at Christmas Creations says it was not until summer that things started to pick back up, with last minute enquiries and special projects aimed to recognise the input of NHS and key workers in place of more traditional installations.

Many destinations were facing budget cuts, especially for internal and covered schemes which were seeing reductions in footfalls. But, according to Waters, this was to a small degree offset by a growth in exterior displays.

“There was concern that Christmas may be cancelled but thanks to meticulous planning and the commitment of our staff we were able to deliver all our client’s schemes on time and on budget,” Waters tells. “The dedication of our installation team continued into the New Year and we safely removed all the schemes in record time.”

For decorators City Dressing it was a similar picture of uncertainty: the planning cycle for Christmas shortened from nine months to nine days, overnight cancellations, and the now-impossible task of making long term plans. Managing director at City Dressing, Jeremy Rucker, says this made them realise they had to change tack and adapt to the situation as it developed.

“We changed our strategy to be more agile and flexible to respond quicker to external conditions,” Rucker tells, saying they had to come up with more ‘homemade’ solutions that were made locally and could be turned around more quickly.

“It is in all of our DNA to want to increase footfall and dwell time over Christmas but 2020 was about giving a community something to smile about,” he explains. “This demanded a pivot away from event based activities towards more imaginative use of props and space. We enjoyed the challenge and hope created so imaginative installations.”

And for Christmas retail decorators, Fizzco, whilst it was a period of trials and trepidations, company director Wendy Clarkson says the highs were ‘way higher than the lows’ and that having a can-do attitude proved more valuable than ever this past year.

“Plans made in January and February were thrown out the window and new plans made throughout the year continuingly evolved,” Clarkson tells, saying that it has been a year defined by late nights and early mornings rather than the usual sparkles and bright lights.

She says the most significant impact on their business has been managing customer relationships and changing their project management processes. “Some clients were worried about the decline in rents, foot traffic and consumer spending, meaning we had to produce a more efficient strategy and method of allocating finances and resources,” she explains.

The experiences of 2020 will, Clarkson says, filter into an altered business strategy and a more flexible approach when creating future Christmas and seasonal displays for shopping centres.

Making the best of a difficult situation, the subsequent lockdowns allowed Fizzco’s operations strategy to fast-forward, and in May 2020 it launched its 5,000 square foot Christmas showroom, with plans to double the space in 2021.

“The showroom allows clients to visit in person or virtually with our 360 scans. We felt it was imperative to give our clients increased security through being able to ‘see before they buy’,” she adds.

(Image: Great Grottos Covid-safe measure)

Socially distanced Santa

Taking the kids to see Santa, an activity which traditionally involves a sit down on the big man’s knee and telling him everything you want to see under the tree come Christmas morning, would be something you might most families would give a miss in a Covid-conscious, socially-distanced world.

This assumption is in many ways accurate, with Great Grottos reporting 60 per cent fewer Santa’s grottos in 2020. However, according to the managing director of the grotto firm, Matthew Wise, desire for the bearded present-bringer remained high: “We saw unprecedented demand for Santa, often selling out on the majority of dates with many families travelling much greater distances.”

Wise says that Great Grottos made sure their offer was Covid-safe, with strict ticketing systems to control numbers, and socially distanced visits taking place. He says that irrespective of risk perception, the man in the big red suit remained a huge footfall driver throughout the Christmas period.

In a bid to capture the imagination of the online shoppers, Great Grottos also experimented with Santa video calls, which, reassuringly for retailers, Wise says had a very low aggregate demand.

“Convenience and safety were an insufficient draw for families, who maintained an overwhelming preference for the hosted experiential day out,” Wise explains. “Retail works online – Santa does not. He continues to be an exceptional competitive advantage.”

Looking ahead, he says that their current expectations are or the impediments to Christmas will be largely eliminated come winter and the seasonal event market will  recapture its variety and vigour: “Early movers are likely to be offered attractive terms.”

(Image: Fizzco Projects Winter Wonderland in Barnsley’s Alhambra Shopping Centre

The future of Christmas

All going to plan, Christmas 2021 should be able to more or less a return to normal. However, the industry concern is that shopping habits have changed among consumers, with lockdown causing people to embrace online retail. Couple this with several significant high street names exiting the high street and Christmas 2021 threatens to be anything but a return to normal.

“The term new normal is as misunderstood as it is ubiquitous,” says City Dressing’s Rucker. He thinks that 2021 will see a return to a more normal shopping pattern but that there will still be elements of voluntary social distance, and a reduction in budget that will create a demand for more targeted installations that encourage shoppers to return to the high street over the whole  Christmas period.

He predicts more Christmas markets, children’s events and community events and less large light switch-ons and light shows, as well as more living advent calendars in empty shop windows, Christmas trails and Santa sleigh selfie opportunities.

One of City Dressing’s most popular installations was a giant post box installed at Leamington Spa on the parade, which saw hundreds of shoppers post letters to Santa. “The strange thing was half of the letters were from adults asking for Santa’s help,” Rucker laughs.

He believes that the key to success for Christmas 2021 will be the ability to innovate and find new ways of celebrating Christmas. “Budget was moved from Light Switch Ons to longer term installations and I think this creates a more efficient use Christmas budget,” he explains, adding that the trend he is looking out for is to see how much the environment and issues around sustainable impact decisions this year.

Fizzco’s Wendy Clarkson believes that from a retail perspective, Christmas 2021 will be better than normal due to an increase in consumer spending instore, as the physical experience of going to your local shopping centre was something many people missed in 2020 and will appreciate more than ever this year.

“Overall ,Christmas 2021 will be bigger, brighter, and better than ever,” she predicts. “This Christmas many families and friends had to spend the special time apart, so we predict Christmas 2021 will be extraordinary.”

In order to make Christmas a success, she says the biggest things that the pandemic taught them is that that businesses of any size have to modify and continuously adapt to survive and thrive more than ever before. And, if you want to stand out from competitors, you cannot be afraid be to try something new.

She says: “It is easy to get stuck in the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” syndrome, but 2020 has taught us that you need to be focused on exploring and executing those new ideas, trying new things, and innovating creative ways to successfully do business.”

Christmas Creations’ Alex Waters thinks that if last year taught them anything it is that Christmas will prevail. “The idea of togetherness and sharing an experience or showing appreciation through gifts is incredibly important,” he explains. “2020 has shown people need family, friends and social interaction; the traditional memories of Christmas were what everyone craved last year. “

He expects that traditional imagery and themes that hark back to childhood memories of Christmas, will be popular this year, alongside the growing popularity of photo opportunities, allowing for “Instagrammable” moments.

One of Christmas Creations’ most successful projects from last year was a project conceived during the start of the first lockdown. Drawing upon the symbolism of the rainbow that came to stand for appreciating the NHS and Keyworkers, they created a trail situated along the Canal in Paddington for a scheme close to St Mary’s Hospital in London.

The trail consisted of collections of Christmas trees illuminated in the 7 colours of the rainbow and featured a custom neon sign with the phrases; Hope, Joy, Courage, Inclusive, Peace, Kindness and Love. The trees were positioned on various height platforms to create a backdrop with the neon in the centre, perfectly framed for photos.

At the start of the trail was a 12ft high rainbow made from baubles intertwined with LEDs which were programmed to create rainbow effects. Arching out from the wall it created a perfect backdrop and included a custom neon sign with branding to promote the trail.

“We wanted to recognise the incredible work of the NHS and create a concept that would enable interaction whilst remaining COVID safe,” explains Waters. “The inclusion of a contactless donation point encouraged visitors to show their appreciation to the St Mary’s NHS staff for their tireless work throughout. Thanks to the generosity of people they raised thousands of pounds and the success of the campaign helped drive footfall across the site.”

( Image: Christmas Creations, photo credit: Christopher Willan)

A show of support

If there is one thing that everyone needs to be doing right now it is supporting one another in order to build back better. Whilst they Christmas decorations industry have expressed their optimism about Christmas 2021, they cannot do it without the help of landlords – so how can landlords help make the next festive season a success?

Wendy Clarkson says the best way retail landlords can support the Christmas industry is to be creative, honest, proactive, and daring. She says: “Those wacky and wonderful ideas that seem out of this world can become a reality when planning early and partnering with the right Christmas supplier. Retail landlords should focus on creating and developing a unique and unforgettable experience for their customers.

“Creating immersive visual displays, which create dynamic and atmospheric environments, rather than specific gatherings or festive events over the peak season, is something landlords can do to encourage consumers back to shopping centres in a safe and manageable way.”

Jeremy Rucker thinks that the most effective wat to attract people to the shops this Christmas will be to make better use of empty shops. He says: “There will be significantly more empty space in shopping centres and if this can be repurposed it will create much more of an impelling reason to visit a shopping centre and dispel the myth that retail mix is the major pull for shopping centres.

And Alex Waters says that landlords need to support the managing agents, retailers, and customers by showing they are committed to ensuring the success of the high street and retail.

He says: “One thing that the lock downs have shown is how people can’t get the same experience shopping online, from trying on clothes, to meeting friends for coffee, visiting the cinema or getting your purchases instantly.

“If retailers can ensure they can offer these things to customers, Landlords need to show this support by offering discounted parking, incentives to shop at their site with a loyalty scheme and activities  throughout the year to engage with customers. Seasonal events combined with decorations create impact and entice customers in.”

This feature was originally published in Retail Destination Fortnightly.

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