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.
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.
The mall is owned by Corporate Property Investors, a New York-based firm that owns 28 other shopping centers around the country. CPI is bullish on retailing. In 1988 it expanded another mall near Boston by adding a second floor. A similar expansion, to add 100 shops, is planned here at South Shore.
``To maintain market share, we need to keep this place vibrant,'' Prandato says. ``It'll be first-class - as good as it gets.''
But even now the mall is doing fine. New Warner Bros. and Disney stores - equal parts amusement park and retailing outlet - are drawing in gaggles of kids. Adults come for sales at the major department stores or for promotions like mall-wide gift certificates. On a peak day during the Christmas rush, an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 people troop through the mall's crowded corridors - enough to populate a small town.
Most of the work to attract customers - setting up displays, distributing coupons, and so forth - is performed by individual stores. The mall manager acts as the landlord, overseeing common areas and such basic services as utilities and maintenance.
The most important thing the mall management does, Prandato says, is to provide security. ``We do a fair amount of customer surveying, and the No. 1 thing that people want is to feel safe and secure,'' he says. It is a big reason why most shoppers choose suburban malls over old downtown shopping areas.
Mike Carr, an engaging man who once worked as a newspaper photographer, is in charge of mall security. Wearing a tweed jacket that makes him look more like a college professor than a cop, he prowls the mall with an advanced walkie-talkie - ``the same kind they used in the Gulf war'' - on his hip. He oversees a force of Pinkerton guards (mostly young, mostly strapping) who walk the mall grounds on the lookout for troublemakers. Three jeeps patrol the parking lot.
Mr. Carr stresses that his men - and soon one woman - are guards, not police officers. They don't carry guns or nightsticks or Mace, although they do wear Smokey the Bear hats. Their biggest job, Carr says, is finding lost children. ``But we know where to go. They're usually in the Disney or Warner stores.'' A vital detail: rodent control
Of course, lost children aren't the only obstacle that mall employees face around holiday time. At a Brigham's restaurant, manager Ed Pappas has hired lots of extra employees to cope with the demands of harried shoppers who want food - now! He's also got crews working on another vital detail - rodent control.
``I've worked in malls all over Massachusetts,'' Mr. Pappas says, ``and I haven't seen a mall anywhere that is completely rodent-free.'' Several years ago, most of the mall's restaurants - but not Brigham's, Pappas stresses several times - were cited for mice infestations. At one restaurant that has since gone out of business, one diner remembers finding a cockroach in her spinach crepe.
South Shore Plaza, like most shopping malls, sits atop a giant tunnel - a grim, dark, concrete labyrinth - that stores use to unload supplies. But the mall now emphasizes rodent extermination.
Dealing with human predators is sometimes more difficult, the restaurant manager says. Con artists try to pull the ``quick change'' routine - asking for change for a $20, but handing a $10 to the cashier - or the old ``bug in the salad'' trick. ``I've gotten them a few times, putting the bug in, and usually when they're almost done with their meal,'' Pappas says in disgust.
But he quickly adds that the problem is nowhere near as prevalent here in the suburbs as it was where he worked in downtown Boston. ``I'm glad to be here,'' he says. ``It's more civilized.''
That sentiment is shared by many mall employees. ``It's a lot easier than working a strip mall or individual store,'' says Sam Gangel, a veteran salesman at Simon & Sons, a menswear store. ``At an individual store, you go to lunch and dinner and you gotta put on your coat and travel a ways. Here, you just go out the door. You don't get cold or wet much. It's far easier.''
Jennifer Hunt, an employee at the Pizzeria Regina on the other side of the mall, says working here does have its downside - especially at Christmas time. ``It's kind of hectic and very hard to find a parking spot,'' she says, while enjoying a brief break on a bench outside the restaurant. But, on the whole, ``I love the mall,'' Ms. Hunt says.
Like many employees here, Hunt says she enjoys meeting - and befriending - people who work in neighboring stores. Another advantage she treasures is - what else? - shopping. ``I love to shop. When I get a paycheck, I go right out and do some shopping,'' Hunt says. Mall employees `get the best deals'
Yes, it's true. Just because they work here doesn't mean that employees don't enjoy browsing or buying as much as other shoppers. Maybe more, because mall employees enjoy a key advantage over outsiders: They're here every day. They know exactly when and where to find bargains. ``I get the best deals,'' Mr. Gangel brags.
But employees find all the mall's advantages sorely tested between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Hordes of shoppers stampede the stores. Their demands are sometimes unreasonable. Sometimes they're rude. Nowhere is the problem worse than at a small pet store, part of a chain.
``Do you ever get difficult customers?'' a reporter innocently asks salesman Gerry Gardetto. He yells across at fellow employee Valerie Shand: ``Hey, Val: Do we ever get difficult customers?'' And then he laughs. So does Ms. Shand. Deep, knowing, ironic laughs. ``We encounter two types here,'' she says. ``People with children, and people who think their puppies are children.''
Mr. Gardetto adds: ``People get very emotional around animals. In most other stores, you just deal with inanimate objects. But with animals, people's emotions sometimes get the better of them.''
The ``nightmare customer before Christmas'' doesn't only shop at this pet store. Tracy Grant, a clerk at a mall shoe store, says customers often come in ``screamin' and hollerin''' if the dye jobs on their shoes didn't come out right.
It's a tough situation for Ms. Grant, who, like many salespeople, works on commission and can't afford to alienate a customer. ``I think, `Help!' I want to get out, go home. But I can't lose control. I grin and bear it. You've just got to stand there and smile.''
Frank Ryan mainly just stands around all day, but he doesn't mind. Mr. Ryan and his wife, Gale, run the ``Stockings to Stuff'' kiosk in the mall at this time of year. Ryan, a gregarious man with a heavy Irish brogue, doesn't spend the rest of his year like other seasonal workers - traditionally students, with more and more unemployed adults sprinkled in. When he's not selling Christmas stockings, Ryan is playing his guitar in Irish-American pubs and nightclubs around Boston.
Christmas is even more hectic for him than for most employees: After he leaves the mall at 8 p.m., he heads out to play a gig with his band. ``I enjoy doing it,'' Ryan says. Then he thinks a moment and adds: ``If we had to work here all year and then Christmas was a zoo, I might feel differently.''