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Deck the Malls : Merchants Find True Value in Attracting Shoppers With Show Biz

December 09, 1988|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

You might have noticed the ice rink at Nordstrom in South Coast Plaza. Or the elves at Fashion Island. Or the giant talking bear at Anaheim Plaza.

They are all part of the arsenal of gimmicks designed to combat any hint of sluggish holiday shopping. Even before many families had discarded last year's Christmas tree, retailers--determined not to repeat 1987's Scroogy Christmas sales--had begun plotting ways to keep customers and cash flowing during this holiday season.

And a big part of this year's blueprint is show biz. The notion of shopping as entertainment is gaining a bigger foothold every year, store executives say, and that trend is expected to continue as competition breeds more sophisticated methods of luring buyers.

Locally, Newport Center/Fashion Island took one of the boldest steps of this holiday season. The Newport Beach shopping center hired a national entertainment company to develop a Christmas theme and produce holiday shows to draw crowds.

The result has been an assortment of shows and events created by Robert F. Jani Productions, a Palos Verdes firm known for its splashy extravaganzas, including the openings of the South Street Seaport in New York and The Bayside Marketplace in Miami. For more than 30 years, Jani has been involved with the Walt Disney organization, creating the Main Street Electrical Parade and planning programs for Disneyland, Walt Disney World, EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland. The firm also helped plan the Bicentennial Salute to America at the Statue of Liberty in 1976.

Jani launched Fashion Island's holiday package by forming the Fashion Island Entertainment Co.--eight young, local, professional singers and dancers who will perform at the mall on weekends throughout the season. Then dwarfs were hired to portray Santa's elves. Finally, John Schneider of TV's "The Dukes of Hazzard" was commissioned to join in the mall's tree-lighting ceremony along with a live orchestra and Kids Are Music, an Orange County vocal group. To top it off, the company designed and built a large, ornate replica of an English cottage to serve as Santa's house.

Fashion Island spokeswoman Eileen Bohen says recent marketing surveys and discussions with area residents revealed that customers want entertainment with their shopping. For the holiday season, it's no longer enough to have a Christmas tree and a Santa. As shopping centers replace the town squares and downtowns of yesteryear, they are expected to provide more than merchandise.

"Our attitude is that shopping centers are really the entertainment centers of tomorrow," says George Koster, marketing director of Jani Productions. "Given the fact that our society has more and more young families, the shopping centers have become the place where they all get together, like the town centers of a century ago. They are places where you can go and get entertainment and meet friends and families."

The Jani company believes so strongly in shopping as entertainment that it has created a separate shopping center division within the firm. A company brochure says: "People have always understood the entertainment value of shopping. It is simply human nature that people like to be at the center of activity. For centuries, the market has been more than just a place to shop. It has been a social center, a part of our culture, a place to live."

Jani's Fashion Island planners weren't the only ones plotting new forms of entertainment to draw customers this year.

Construction began Nov. 28 on the Nordstrom ice rink that opened Dec. 2 at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. The ice rink, the store's first such venture, was built to draw customers and benefit charity. Proceeds from the $4 admission charge, which includes skate rentals, will go to the Make-a-Wish-Foundation, the international group that helps grant wishes to children suffering from life-threatening diseases.

According to Nordstrom spokeswoman Linda Hamilton, the rink was a way to "give something back to the community for supporting us all these years. It's a fun thing for families, and it benefits a wonderful cause."

The 40-by-60-foot rink, surrounded by poinsettias, pine trees and old-fashioned Christmas lights, will be dismantled late Sunday. Hamilton said Nordstrom made an agreement with South Coast Plaza that the rink would come down as Christmas drew near because it cuts into the mall's parking area. However, skaters will be able to cut the ice today and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. or Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Other stores and malls around the county have staged slightly less elaborate events and visual displays. The Mall of Orange had Santa parading into its center court with a herd of real reindeer accompanied by local children.

Anaheim Plaza purchased a 9-foot animated talking bear named "Beartholomew" to sing and talk to children. And South Coast Plaza and nearby Crystal Court and South Coast Village are continuing their programs of live entertainment, with most of the children's activity happening at the Santasfaction display in the plaza's Carrousel Court.

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