HD: Holiday Scenes From a Mall
Now is the busiest time for Santas, security guards, and salespeople
THIS scene from a mall should be familiar to anyone who's ever shopped during the winter holiday time. Which is to say virtually everyone.Skip to next paragraph
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A mother with two small children in tow walks up to Santa Claus, who is sitting on an elaborately decorated throne in the middle of the mall's busiest area. The tykes bounce onto Santa's lap - and then frown, grimace, and squirm for several agonizing minutes. Santa's helper, working behind the camera that will preserve this moment for posterity, waves her arms up and down and grins madly. Then she claps several times. To no avail.
Mom, standing next to the camera, enjoins her children to smile. Dad, positioned behind the photographer, starts snapping his fingers. The kids finally begrudge a thin smile, the photograph is snapped, and everyone troops over the cash register.
But what does Santa think about this assembly-line operation?
At the South Shore Plaza, a spacious suburban shopping mall south of Boston, the Santa - who, by the way, sports a very real white beard - works a grueling schedule around the holidays, from 10 in the morning until late at night. Doesn't he get a trifle tired of having perky youngsters bouncing on and off his lap?
We'll never know. When approached by a reporter, the exemplar of the Christmas spirit glumly replied: ``I don't mind talking to you, but I work for Santa Plus, and they don't want me to do interviews. For five weeks a year, they own me. Sorry.''
To get more information about Santa - and mall operations in general - we head downstairs.
In contrast to the ``Masterpiece Theater'' production ``Upstairs/Downstairs,'' at the mall it is the servants (or workers) who reside on the upper floors and the bosses who sit below.
Tom Prandato, the avuncular mall manager whom Santa answers to, has an office located down an unmarked flight of stairs from the B. Dalton bookstore. Leaning back in his leather armchair, Mr. Prandato explains that the ``Santa operation'' is a big part of what malls have to do in order to draw in busy shoppers during the Christmas-Hanukkah holidays. ``We try to make it a fun experience,'' he says.
``There have been problems with Santas in other places,'' Prandato adds delicately. ``There have been some - how do you say it? - perhaps some unpleasant experiences.... But here, we've been very careful. We hire a company that handles the photo promotion and does the recruiting and hiring of individuals to man the Santa set. We try to work with the company and maintain a level of control. We want to develop something that lends itself to the holiday spirit.'' The world that shoppers don't see
Welcome to the world behind the cheery facade that all malls put on during the Christmas shopping season - a world most shoppers never see. The ``holiday spirit'' and the jingle of cash registers isn't spontaneously generated. It is the product of extensive, wearying, sometimes dispiriting, often exhilarating work by a small army of managers, salespeople, maintenance crews, and security guards.
While Christmas or Hanukkah might be important to you and your family, it is vital to the retailers who congregate in malls. The Thanksgiving-to-Christmas period is when many stores rack up 40 to 50 percent of their annual sales.
The operation of the South Shore Plaza is fairly typical of other malls in suburbs from sea to shopping sea. Built in the 1960s, the mall has four big department stores anchoring its corners. In between are 106 shops and restaurants, even a law firm. The complex is about 1.4 million square feet - one-third the size of the Pentagon - and includes more than 7,000 parking spaces.