Garland, lights, fir trees, Santa. These symbols of the holidays are all standard fare in seasonal shopping center decor. But such traditions have not stopped centers from putting their own spin on holiday decorating.

Retail centers are going all out for their decor during the busiest shopping season of the year. The extra effort can lead to big payoffs in terms of increased mall traffic and shoppers spending more time, and hopefully more money, at the center.

"Every one of our focus groups has said that holiday decor is what attracts them to a shopping center," says Lili Donaldson, director of marketing at Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn, Mich. Last year, Fairlane Town Center launched an elaborate, $300,000 holiday decor scheme that will be used at the 1.5 million sq. ft. mall through 2002.

The years are long gone when a center could hang a little garland and a few lights and say the center is decorated. "Today, centers are looking for a display that people will remember and talk about," says Kevin Maurer, a display consultant at Bronner's Christmas Decorations in Frankenmuth, Mich. That impact is increasingly important as shopping centers face heightened competition for holiday shoppers from other centers, catalogs and the Internet.

"Our clients want to create a real wow with their seasonal decor to make it a destination," agrees Kathy Hillman, director of marketing at The Becker Group, a holiday decor company based in Baltimore. "We want to create these entertaining environments to keep shoppers in a good mood so they will stay in the center longer."

Holiday decor has been proven to affect both traffic and sales. One of the most tangible ways to track consumer response to a center's seasonal decor is through the volume of photo sales in the Santa shop. Centers that introduce a new decor after a few years with the same decorations often see an increase in their Santa visits.

"That is probably the best way of gauging how decor effects shoppers," Maurer says. Bronner's has worked with clients that have seen Santa visits jump by 17% to 25% after introducing new seasonal decor.

Loyal to tradition Holiday decor themes vary with the style and demographics of a center. "It really depends on what they're trying to achieve with their holiday package. Some are an extravaganza. Some are just really interested in decor and trim items. Some want to convey a story or feeling or emotion," says Ken Hobart, head of creative at The Becker Group.

"What's going to make you want to visit one center over another, really, is the magic for kids or sophistication for adults," he says. "Those are all things that center the shopper and make them feel they're a part of this type of program. It puts them in the holiday mood."

One of the common design elements is a sense of tradition. "A classic Christmas is wanted by everybody," Hobart says. During the '60s and '70s, centers could get away with pink and aqua in their seasonal decor. That is not true today. "It's much more classic in presentation, so as not to offend anyone in particular. The focus is on creating a more universal look."

Traditional Christmas decor is not only popular, but it also has become an expected part of a center's general ambiance, says John Dougan, president of Presentation Plus Inc. in Long Lake, Minn. One year, a Presentation Plus client deviated from the traditional Christmas trims to create a Winter Wonderland theme.

"It just blew up in their face," Dougan says. "People don't like you to deviate from the typical Christmas decor." That's why few centers look to contemporary trims or colors. The traditional red, green, gold and ivory combinations continue to be the dominant colors found in holiday decorations.

Shopping centers often build their seasonal decor around traditional themes. However, that doesn't mean centers are confusing tradition with boredom. "We've noticed that people have gone back to a traditional Christmas, but they still enjoy seeing the unusual," Maurer says. Managers are looking for a distinctive decor that will be different from other shopping centers in the area, and will help to entice shoppers into their center.

General Growth's Lansing Mall in Lansing, Mich., for example, recently used a gingerbread theme in its decor. "Even though that's not a new theme, it hasn't been seen in mall decor in a long time. People appreciate the uniqueness of that, and yet it is still traditional," Maurer says.

Even malls that are owned by the same company try to avoid similar decors within the portfolio. In the past, centers could choose from different packages that the owner had approved, such as a fun toy theme for children or a more sophisticated Victorian theme. "That just doesn't work anymore," Maurer says. Now centers are looking for some elements that will allow them to customize the package to their center, even if that means basic changes such as different colors.

"Very little of what we sell is stock design or stock product off a shelf," Maurer says.

Exterior options Seasonal decor is not exclusive to the interior space of large regional and superregional malls. Retailers, ranging from power and strip centers to neighborhood shops and outlet malls, all exhibit the holiday spirit with their seasonal decor. Because many of these centers don't have the same common area space, they utilize just about every other available option, such as rooftops, light poles, marquee signs and main entry areas. Lights, banners, signs and animated figures are all used to create exterior displays.

Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix is one outdoor center that gets creative with its warm, outdoor setting. "The traditions that exist in other parts of the country don't work for us," says Jim Tolson, Biltmore's facility director. Instead, Biltmore has created its own concept that has made it a destination center for people who come just to look at the unique holiday decor. The 500,000 sq. ft. mall creates a massive display using thousands of poinsettias in its outdoor landscape.

Biltmore's landscape decor features more than 3,000 poinsettias located in the center court area. The focal point is a 26-foot steel-framed Christmas tree that is shaped with hundreds of poinsettias. "That becomes one of the most photographed spots in the valley. People frequently come to take their family holiday photos there," Tolson says.

The landscape also features four smaller poinsettia trees, as well as flower beds planted with live poinsettias. Considering the impact with shoppers, the landscape is fairly cost-effective at an annual expense of about $15,000.

Marketing opportunities Decor is often an integral part of seasonal marketing strategies. Centers can create special events and promotions around decor, as well as incorporate those messages into other advertising.

Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn, Mich., actually developed a holiday theme that will tie into marketing efforts for a proposed new tenant. The mall chose its new entertainment theme, "Musical, Magical Holiday Kingdom," in part because the center is planning to add a new, 30-screen Star Theater. The holiday decor emphasizes the entertainment concept with musical instrument-shaped decorations and a variety of live entertainment.

"What it's promoting is a family-friendly center," Donaldson says. Fairlane plans to keep the same decor in place for three more holiday seasons, which will coincide with the construction and opening of the new megaplex.

Many centers have a holiday theme that carries over into all aspects of advertising, marketing and decor, such as "At Home with Santa," "Joy to the World" or "Holiday Giving." Fairlane weaves its Musical, Magical Holiday Kingdom theme into its advertising campaign. The center created radio spots that sound similar to characters from Beauty and the Beast, with one of the mall's seasonal performers singing a special jingle created to draw people into the mall.

The best programs are the ones that use the same theme, design and colors in all aspects of decor, from shopping bags and gift-with-purchase promotions to packaging and advertising campaigns. "You need to reinforce the message," Dougan says.

One aspect often overlooked is the holiday shopping bag. "I am a firm believer that your advertising to the consumers should be consistent," says Mark Franovich, manager of the shopping center division for San Diego-based Germain Packaging Inc. "Your bags should reflect your image - the same colors and same styles that are used in the interior of the store."

Nearly one-third of the 500,000 bag orders that Germain receives each year are for the holiday season. "We consider shopping bags a very viable advertising medium," Franovich says. "It's rare that you can put an ad that is that large, colorful and utilitarian in someone's hand."

Another popular trend is to tie Christmas to the giving spirit. "Centers want you to buy, but at the same time, they want to be able to hit into the hearts and get closer to the meaning of the holidays," Hobart says. "Charities have come into play more than we've seen in the past." Centers are trying to associate with charitable programs such as toys for children, literacy campaigns and food for the homeless.

The majority of centers within Simon Property Group's portfolio incorporate charities into their seasonal theme. "Most of the centers have been doing that for five to 10 years," says Michele Sullender, divisional director of marketing for Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group. "I think people like to give back, and that's a way for them to give back while they're out shopping for friends and family," she says.

Simon properties work with charities such as the Make-a-Wish foundation and the Angel Tree.

Making a list Planning seasonal decor encompasses a variety of different aspects. Most programs are based on budget, demographics and coordination with existing mall architecture and interior design. Typical costs for a seasonal decor package range from $60,000 to $1 million, depending on the type and extent of decor. On average, most decor packages are used for three to four years.

"That time period is about as long as most decor can survive going up and down," Hillman says. A second reason for the frequency of change is to create a fresh look every few years.

Some centers do long-range planning for their holiday decor, and work a year or more in advance. Others wait until the last minute of September or even October. To some extent, the time required for planning depends on the quantity and elaborateness of a seasonal decor design.

Most centers spend four to five months planning all of the details involved, ranging from overall theme to colors and fabrics. "It is really unbelievable the time that goes into a well-executed decor program," Maurer says.

Simon Property Group saves time for its mall managers by pre-selecting standardized seasonal decor packages. "What we wanted to do was have consistency in our Christmas decor," Sullender says. "We also didn't want our marketing people to spend a lot of their time on planning and reorienting their centers each year."

Another goal has been to spend less money on seasonal decor programs, and spend those dollars in other areas, Sullender says. Typically, holiday programs at Simon last five to seven years. The company aims for cost-effectiveness in the types of decorations it purchases. For example, reusable items such as metal frames can be re-ornamented to change colors or designs.

Simon's pre-selected packages allow centers to choose a decor that fits with customer demographics at individual properties. So if a center is family-oriented, managers can choose themes that spark more interest among children and are more functional, such as having more stroller space in the Santa area. Upscale centers can opt for a more sophisticated package that has a wider appeal to adults.

"What we strive for is consistency, quality and coverage for the program," Sullender says, "so that you feel the holidays when you are in the center."