For generations, NorthPark Center’s holiday marketing campaigns became time-honored family traditions. It’s a rite of passage in Dallas to be photographed on the knee of the mall’s Santa and teased by Scrooge.
But then came COVID-19.
Since March, the family-owned and operated mall has been making adjustments to its busiest time of the year in a social distancing era.
“We considered what can we do and how can we still make an impact,” said Kristen Gibbins, executive director of marketing and strategy at NorthPark. “These were all big decisions for us and if there was an issue with social distancing, we opted for the safe route.”
A big one: Santa won’t be traveling here from the North Pole this year.
In his 32nd holiday season at the mall, retired Austin-based psychologist Carl Anderson will portray Santa virtually online in the shopping center’s reimagined Christmas.
Scrooge puppet performances by former Dallas resident Will Schutze will also move online and so will the free annual performances of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Opera and Dallas Black Dance. More than 150 live performances by local schools and arts groups are being canceled.
“But we’re still going to make sure there’s a magical experience for people at NorthPark,” Gibbins said. The trains at NorthPark benefitting the Ronald McDonald House will go on and so will the Salvation Army Tree and Red Kettles.
Most of a mall’s marketing budget – usually in the millions of dollars for a successful regional center like NorthPark — is spent on the November and December holiday shopping season.
Decorations that have been part of its holiday scene for years will be back, including Santa and his sleigh made from pecans. New this year is a display of trees decorated with origami ornaments sold at Neiman Marcus to benefit Paper for Water, which raises money to fund water wells around the world.
NorthPark has mostly paired its holiday features with a nonprofit. Santa’s by reservation virtual visits will cost $24.95 and up, with 100% of the proceeds donated to Children’s Health. Other events online include pet adoptions supporting the SPCA of Texas.
This year, the mall’s overall operating costs have gone up to pay for COVID-19 related expenses for enhanced cleaning efforts, additional security and new signage, Gibbins said.
Still, NorthPark is expecting 2020 to deliver a solid Christmas. Its stores and restaurants typically ring up more than $1 billion a year in sales.
“The luxury category is doing very well,” Gibbins said. “Our traffic has bounced back significantly. It’s building steadily and many of our stores are doing better this year than last year.”
Nationally, mall traffic is improving but customer counts at some properties remain as much as 30% down, according to tracking firm Placer.ai. Another firm, Sensormatic Solutions, expects U.S. in-store traffic for the six weeks starting with Thanksgiving week to be down as much as 25% from the same period last year.
At a time when retailers are rethinking their brick-and-mortar presence, NorthPark is adding new stores and more than 10 existing tenants have signed lease renewals during the pandemic. NorthPark has a new director of leasing, Angela Boots, who comes to the mall with 20 years of experience, most recently as director of real estate for Williams Sonoma and prior to that at Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza.
The pandemic isn’t stopping Eataly from opening at NorthPark — the only new location it’s launching in the U.S. this year. The three-level, 48,000-square-foot restaurant and grocery is on schedule to open in December.
NorthPark’s new stores include Zimmerman, Byredo, Billy Reid, Psycho Bunny, Parachute and Dr. Martens. Louis Vuitton and Peloton have expanded their stores. Kate Weiser will open a popup store near Nordstrom to sell her popular Carl the Snowman hot chocolate.
NorthPark is preparing a digital gift guide that will come out before Black Friday. It’ll accommodate curbside pickup and debut a new personal shopping program.
Three people have been hired to run the personal shopping program that will include home delivery within a 30-mile radius of the mall. The program will give customers the kind of experience they can get from personal shoppers at Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, but will cover the center’s 200 stores.
“We’ve been wanting to start a personal shopping program for several years,” Gibbins said. “The notion of shopping has come to mean different things. Some like the in-person experience, some want it all to be digital and some need a gift-buying service for 50 clients or to help buy their wife diamond earrings.”
Service is one thing but ambiance still matters, particularly during the holiday season. People want to come to the mall to be inspired.
The largest U.S. mall owner, Simon Property Group, decided people still will want to see Santa in person. Simon said its three North Texas shopping centers — Firewheel Town Center in Garland, Grapevine Mills and North East Mall in Hurst — will have socially distanced visits with Santa starting the Friday after Thanksgiving. Reservations are required. Santa and his helpers will be wearing masks throughout the visit.
NorthPark requires customers to wear masks and there have been no issues in recent months with the requirement, Gibbins said. “We’re seeing people who have learned to navigate the new normal of social distancing.”
The upscale mall still plans to splurge for the landscaping it’s known for and there will be some live music. NorthPark’s official pianist Brad Hanson, who performed on Facebook when malls were temporarily closed by the state as a response to the pandemic, will be playing most days in the mall’s north court area.
“Despite the challenges we face this year, we are committed to providing our guests with the very best experience possible while also getting creative to encourage support of the many nonprofit organizations that are part of our special tradition,” said Nancy Nasher, co-owner of the mall with her husband David Haemisegger.
Since 1995, they’ve been running the 55-year-old mall built by her parents. It remains one of the few locally owned malls in the U.S.
Even as the pandemic moves more shopping online, most analysts believe top malls will continue to be destinations in major markets.
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