WASHINGTON – Santa Claus is coming to town at malls across Maryland this weekend — well behind shopping center decorators who have been decking the halls for weeks in preparation for his arrival.
“We actually did our holiday decor-install the first weekend in November,” said Alisha Rogers, marketing coordinator at Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis.
Across the country, this weekend is by far the most popular for Santa’s arrival, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.
For shopping centers, that meant that decorating the malls began in the first week of November, because displays have gotten so big. Holiday display companies said it can take two to five 12-hour nights or longer to get the Santa set fully installed.
While some malls still try to hold off on Christmas decorating, many say that parents and children alike are happy to see Santa just two weeks after Halloween.
“Everybody wants to get the holiday season kicked off earlier and earlier,” said Glenn Tilley, president of the Becker Group, which claims to be the world’s largest mall holiday display provider. “When I first started in ’89, everything started in the second or third week (of November). And now it’s just the first week, the day after Halloween.”
Mall operators insist the earlier date is not a ploy to part shoppers from their holiday money — they said parents want Santa to show up early so there is not such a crunch to see him.
“Some of our mall shoppers comment that, ‘We wish Santa Claus would arrive earlier so we wouldn’t have to wait in such long lines,'” said Billie Scott, spokeswoman for Simon Property Group Inc., which owns 236 U.S. shopping centers.
She said Simon Property started moving Santa’s arrival date up several years ago.
At Simon Property’s Bowie Town Center, Santa officially arrived Saturday, after a “dry run” Friday so that Santa and his photography crew could make sure everything was ready.
“Folks are busy, especially during those five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” said David Gott, the mall’s manager. “I think those parents who may not have time . . . it gives them time to get the kids out (to see Santa).”
But not all shoppers are thrilled to see Santa in mid-November.
“We actually had tried it one year and felt like it wasn’t the right thing for the mall,” said Tony Summers, retail marketing manager at the Mall in Columbia.
Santa arrives in Columbia on the traditional date, the Friday after Thanksgiving.
“We’re always tempted to go earlier,” Summers said. “I don’t think our customers want to see it (decorations) that early.”
The Columbia mall decorators start with the ceiling decor like banners, lights and garlands, that shoppers may not notice right away, and hold the Santa set for last so the change is not so shocking.
Kirk Ballard, a vice president of General Growth Properties, said Santa will arrive in half of his company’s 165 U.S. malls and shopping centers this weekend, in the other half next weekend. But Ballard said he remembers years when the arrival of Santa was even earlier.
“We had a lot of unhappy customers, feeling we were trying to commercialize Santa too much,” he said. “We have moved a week to 10 days, on average, later to give more of a natural break between Halloween and the holiday season.”
While the early arrival of Santa gives parents the chance to beat the rush with their kids, Ballard knows many parents are reluctant to come too early. His company’s answer to lines of up to three hours for a Santa visit is to give parents pagers that will go off when the wait is down to about 20 minutes.
“Even when you bring Santa in early, people are not thinking about getting their kid dressed up and bringing him in to see Santa on Nov. 10. They’re just not,” Ballard said.