Here Comes Santa Claus
Here Comes Santa Claus By Elizabeth Murphy

Christmas hasn’t always been all sleigh bells and mistletoe. In fact, Puritans canceled Christmas in England in 1645, and Christmas celebrations were outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681: People could be fined five shillings for exhibiting Christmas spirit!

But somewhere along the way, Christmas became a widely celebrated holiday, focused on peace, family, togetherness and, most importantly, shopping. Americans have become accustomed to showering friends and family with gifts during the holidays, and Christmastime is now the busiest shopping season of the year.

Starting the day after Thanksgiving, millions of Americans begin their buying frenzy, and retailers do what they can to draw in the shoppers. In 1841, a Philadelphia store attracted thousands of children by exhibiting a life-size model of Santa Claus. Since then, luring children and their parents by touting a visit from the “real” Santa has become a holiday practice of many businesses.

Becoming a Point of Interest

Some garden centers might spend weeks transforming their showrooms into a winter wonderland, preparing to sell an assortment of Christmas trees, decorations, ornaments and other gifts. “We bring in tons of people around Christmastime; they come in their fancy clothes and bring out-of-town relatives,” says Kate Nelson, nursery manager for Wallace’s Garden Center in Davenport, Iowa. “Visiting our store has become a tradition. We’ve had some people coming for 15 years.”

Keeping customers occupied once they are in the store is not usually a problem for a well-decorated store with a hefty stock of Christmas merchandise. It’s getting them in the door that’s the hard part! With so many holiday sales at the local mall, a garden center has to do something special to remind shoppers to stop in. This is where Santa comes in.

Personalize the Experience

Each store that hires a Santa handles it differently. Some simply invite Santa to their site; others build an elaborate display to house Santa and create a festive backdrop for photographs. Some even go as far as to hire elves to assist Santa or get a photographer to take professional pictures. According to Nelson, Wallace’s Garden Center uses a Santa Claus model but raises live reindeer for their Christmas display.

The tradition of hosting this special holiday guest has been around for decades, but each store seems to have developed its own special way of using Santa to entertain visitors. Countrybrook Farms Garden Center in Hudson, N.H., creates a personalized visit. Parents can fill out slips discreetly to tell Santa little details about their children. When children meet Santa, and he “magically” knows their pet’s name or the color of their house, the effect is convincing! Manager Jo Caron says that parents like to use the opportunity to ask Santa to encourage little Timmy to clean his room or brush his teeth so he won’t get a lump of coal in his stocking.

Stick With What Works

The nature of Santa’s role may vary from store to store, but there are some things that garden centers tend to do the same way:

  • Santa usually visits on a few weekends leading up to Christmas, often in the middle of the day, during high-traffic hours.
  • Most garden centers do not hire a professional photographer; guests are encouraged to bring their own cameras to capture the moment.
  • Most garden centers do not ask for payment to take photographs with Santa. It’s more about goodwill and customer enjoyment than making a profit. Just getting people in the store is payment enough.

Christmas comes just once a year, but the memories last a lifetime. Even though garden centers benefit from the boost of traffic in their store, hosting Santa during the holidays can be even more useful in developing good customer relationships and associating positive experiences with the business.

Jingle All the Way

Want to bring Santa to your garden center? Consider these tips:

  • Select your Santa carefully. Look for someone who is patient, upbeat and great with kids.
  • Help things run smoothly. Have a helper on hand to aid Santa and take pictures for visitors.
  • Authenticity is important. Invest in a good Santa suit and beard — bonus points for the real thing.
  • Let people know. Advertise your Santa visit so people can plan to stop in.
  • Anticipate customer needs. If customers are bringing their own cameras, have a kiosk of batteries or film they can buy if they run out.
  • Clear the way. Place Santa in an area with enough room for people to gather without being in the way of other shoppers.
  • Make it a friendly environment. Avoid being too gimmicky; make visitors feel welcomed, not pressured to spend.
  • Help them remember you. Give out picture holders or other small items with your garden center’s name. This will help associate your name with a positive experience.
  • Keep them coming back. Make your Santa visit an annual event so customers can mark their calendars for each year.

Elizabeth Murphy

Elizabeth Murphy is editorial assistant of Lawn & Garden Retailer. For more information, contact managing editor Paige Worthy at [email protected] or (847) 391-1050.