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Will the Real Santa Please Stand Up?

Welcome to Mall Walk. In a new monthly column from the field, I hope to show how the various assumptions about trends in retailing and development actually hold up when they move from the drawing board to the market. The gurus may be telling us that all the teenagers are buying Steve Maddens and Sean Johns and that boomers have given up on the Gap. But it pays to find out for yourself if that's true.

So, I set out with my own panel of experts — friends' children — to experience the magic of Christmas. Did I say magic? In terms of sales, of course, 2002 represented the bleakest shopping season in 30 years. Still, I wondered: Could the kids, two sixth-grade girls and a boy in kindergarten, experience the enchantment of Christmas shopping past?

We headed first to The Westchester, Simon Property Group's 825,000-square-foot upscale mall in White Plains, N.Y. We arrived at 5:30 the Saturday night before Christmas and quickly found a parking space. A bad sign.

Inside, The Westchester was festooned with burgundy and gold banners; giant faux hot air balloons floated near the glass roofs and large golden cherubs hovered overhead. Poinsettias in various hues were in planters in the wide aisles (which were jammed with with extra holiday kiosks).

The girls' judgment: Pretty, but not very Christmasy. “It looks like Valentine's Day,” said Eleanor Lewis. “Too foofi,” said Emily Pitkin. The Santa setup (he sits on a red wing chair in front of a gigantic, gold inflated teddy bear outside the entrance to Nordstrom's) did not impress Jonathan Lewis, an ardent believer in Santa Claus. He was only a tad more enthusiastic than the tweener girls.

All three, however, succumbed to the delights inside FAO Schwarz, where everything “as seen on TV” jostled with giant stuffed animals and kiddie sports cars.

Next we went to Macy's in Herald Square. Surely, if there was any magic left, it would be here — where The Miracle on 34th Street codified just how merchandising shaped Christmas in America. The movie's plot, laid out scene-by-scene in Macy's windows this season, is about how — despite all the crash commercialism and hucksterism of Christmas in retail-land, there's still magic to be found.

Where the Westchester was understated, Macy's was packed and overdecorated. Sensory overload was everywhere on the main floor as name-brand boutiques (Fossil competing with DKNY; Lancome vying with Prescriptives) screamed for attention — sometimes literally, with sound systems blaring hip-hop.

The kids had a ball looking for Kermit the frog. Macy's was running a tie-in this Christmas that gave you a discount on a Kermit toy and camera if you spent $35. So, throughout the store, on ledges and on rounders, there were Kermit displays. At Macyland — what passes for a toy department now that the giant department store has ceded toy selling to the Kaybees and Toys R Uses of the world — Kris Kringle still presides.

So which is the real Santa? A colleague's daughter, Grace Geracioti, a second-grader from Brooklyn Heights, knows one thing for sure: it's not the jolly, red-suited man greeting children on her neighborhood's main street. “That's not really Santa,” she told a friend. “To see the real Santa you have to go to a mall.”

But if the New York Post can be trusted, Madonna and other celebrities put their bets on the Macy's Santa. As for our child guides' assessment of holiday shopping: “Macy's was definitely more like Christmas, but the mall had much better places to sit.”

Magic? Maybe next year.

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