From staging a Nick Jonas concert at Lord & Taylor to launching fireworks over Fifth Avenue at Bergdorf Goodman, New York City’s iconic department stores went far beyond the typical ceremonial curtain drop to reveal their holiday windows this year. Manhattan's annual spectacle is just one more salvo unleashed in the retail wars as flagship stores vie for design awards, rave reviews and the hearts and dollars of those strolling by.
But department stores aren't just competing with one another: They have the challenge of competing with online retailers. Shop.org forecasts that online holiday sales this year will climb 11 percent over last season's, to $105 billion. But physical stores wield an advantage: Their storefront displays and decor infuse the shopping environment with holiday spirit. So top retailers invest heavily in window marketing to lure passersby indoors -- and to the registers.
Bergdorf Goodman, for example, enlisted in excess of 100 workers to fashion the design, style, lighting, staging and audio for its holiday windows. Display artists for the luxury goods store's Manhattan flagship spend 11 months to plan and another month to install the elegant but fleeting dioramas, says David Hoey, senior director for visual presentation.
“We go over the top with all our windows," Hoey says. "But you can go over the top," he adds, even "with one window."
"The trick is to make it extremely and instantly engaging," Hoey says. "My advice to window dressers across America is do something that is so interesting that in three seconds you grab your target consumer's attention.”
This year Bergdorf Goodman pays homage to classic treasures of literature and fine art, old Hollywood and Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" to evoke holiday nostalgia, Hoey says. Each display is deliberately packed with antique props, accented by striking gowns from Dolce & Gabbana and Julien Macdonald.
While Bergdorf Goodman has drawn from refined art and top designer cuts to lure the posh crowds, Bloomingdale's has adopted interactive technology and social media to capture a contemporary vibe.
Whenever John Klimkowski, national director of visual merchandising for Bloomingdale's, updates the windows for the retailer's Lexington Avenue department store, he stands across the street to judge reactions. Grabbing people's attention is becoming harder than ever, he says. “Everyone is always on their phones, so we knew that for the holidays we had to do something that connects their personal device to the window.”
This year some Bloomingdale's windows let as many as four people play games on their phones. Other windows convey a selfie theme. One window lets people tweet their New Year’s resolutions to a giant screen. “Once you send out your resolution, it sets your New Year’s promise into stone,” Klimkowski says. He calls the store's special Whack-a-bow game "a great way to end a long day of retail therapy.”
Bloomingdale's grand window launch last week featured Tony Award winner Idina Menzel performing "Let It Go" and Coolhaus snack trucks serving holiday cookies and hot cocoa. But embedded underneath the star performance, fancy technology and sugary refreshment is Klimkowski's core design strategy that he revisits each holiday.
“To engage foot traffic I always approach holiday windows with the eyes of a child because during the holidays there’s an inner child in us all,” Klimkowski says. “While the personal device makes the shopping connection, the aesthetic underneath it all is the bow.” The store incorporates a bow into every display in a playful yet stylish manner.
Mid-range retailer Macy’s also delved into interactive tech and moving displays for its window displays this year. At its famous Herald Square store, the windows follow a child’s imaginary journey through space via various planet landscapes, custom-designed toys, handmade elves and an interactive game, all accented by thousands of LED lights.
While the National Retail Federation has projected that department stores will dominate sales over Thanksgiving weekend, small businesses are turning to temporary pop-up shops and shared retail spaces to continue shining long after Small Business Saturday.
Jennifer Magee, whose company Republic Spaces helps arrange pop-up retail sites, just opened Republic Collective in Manhattan's SoHo area. The SoHo venue houses more than a dozen fashion, accessory and lifestyle brands desiring a brick-and-mortar presence during the holidays. Now neatly exhibited under one boutique roof are the wares of Big T NYC (offering couture tea), Farm Candy (artisanal treats),Tania Spinelli (shoes), Ryu Ryu (clothing), Prismsport (activewear) and Bijou Candles.
While main street businesses may not have the budget to spend on high-end technology or award-winning display artists, anyone can master successful window marketing by adhering to the elements of design, Magee says. To create an exciting brick-and-mortar experience for customers, she shares the following tips:
1. Tell a story.
Focus on creating a window display with a narrative. Shoppers are more emotionally drawn to windows if they relay a fun or interesting story, including one related to a particular product. Build a story around an activity, an event or a special theme.
2. Focus on lighting.
A great display that is improperly lighted will fall flat. Use focused lighting to draw attention to key products. White neon lights can be incorporated in displays in different shapes and configurations.
3. Use color.
Too much color in a window can make a display too busy and distracting. Pick as many as three colors to work with and create a design using a particular color scheme.
4. Be theatrical.
A window display is a mini theater presentation. Create displays that are dramatic and alluring to entice shoppers into a shop. They should give an exciting peek into what's coming inside.
5. Be graphic.
Use vinyl cut letters to add a catchy phrase or inject a brand statement directly on a window.