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NYC’s Extravagant Holiday Windows Aren’t Just for Gawking

Every winter, as New York City’s department stores gear up for millions of gift-seeking shoppers, retailers turn to a ghost of advertising past: the venerable holiday window.

Carefully manicured and artfully prepared, extravagant holiday displays have graced Manhattan’s sidewalks for more than a century, reflecting in their polished glass a passing SUV just as they may have once revealed a Model T. These days there are more ways than ever to influence shoppers, from Instagram campaigns to Super Bowl commercials—yet the windows persevere.

In New York, and perhaps elsewhere, the wonder of these windows—sometimes a year in the making—has made them a regular stop on the urban holiday tour. Rockefeller Center? Check. Christmas Spectacular? Check. The block-long Lexington Avenue window extravaganza at Bloomingdale’s, replete with sidewalk sound system? Check.This year the theme for the two biggest players is pretty old-school. Macy’s outfitted its flagship store with Santa and polar bears. Bloomingdale’s had a Grinch-themed set, in conjunction with the cranky guy’s latest iteration in movie theaters. Saks Fifth Avenue, meanwhile, went with a “Theater of Dreams” motif. Bergdorf Goodman created a candy wonderland, while Henri Bendel, which is closing soon, constructed a skyscraper tribute to the city. Barneys New York aspired to a more philanthropic spirit, joining with Save the Children in its “Make Change” charity drive. Its display includes 40,000 pennies affixed to a white board.

Next year there may be more windows for holiday gawkers. Neiman Marcus said it will open a new Manhattan store by March, and Nordstrom plans to unveil its flagship come fall. Although it’s unclear whether they’ll join in the holiday window extravaganza, it’s a pretty safe bet.

Lord & Taylor’s flagship, a staple of New York shopping since it opened in 1914, won’t be at the party in 2019. This season its signs say “everything must go” as the store prepares for oblivion. This is the grim reality facing department stores trying to adapt to an era of e-commerce, off-price retailers and mass-market merchants. While they’re rejiggering store formats, adding services and acquiring hot startups to attract shoppers, there have been many casualties. Bankruptcies this year alone included the final implosion of Sears and the collapse of Bon-Ton.

Still, for all the strategizing, the windows remain. The holiday-display-as-marketing-device began at Macy’s in the 1800s. After the turn of that century, department stores battled one another for window supremacy in a race to increase foot traffic. Much of the focus nowadays is about cutting costs, closing stores and winning online shoppers who’ve abandoned them for Yet these ornate little theaters of commerce, which can cost some serious money to construct, remain in the budget.That’s because these anachronisms have become part of 21st century branding strategy. Windows open as early as November and are revealed in raucous parties that can close down half a city block. Stores will do crossover partnerships with major media brands to amp up the marketing blitz even further. More broadly, the holiday displays are used in sprawling advertising campaigns. Executives say the windows continue to pull customers in the door, but moving specific products takes a back seat inside these jewel boxes. The holiday display is all about building hype. Shoppable, sharable hype. Those windows are begging for a selfie, a post, a share.

Three weeks before Thanksgiving, Bloomingdale’s unveiled its windows with the usual flair. Violinist Lindsey Stirling performed on a sidewalk stage built for the occasion, the facade decked out in green Grinch art. Inside, before the show, the musician adjusted her instrument while going through her choreography. Overhead, Grinch graphics loomed on a big screen.

“Christmas in New York has its own special magic to it,” Stirling said. “It’s because of these things like the store windows. It feels almost timeless.”

Bloomingdale’s Chief Executive Officer Tony Spring attended the event this year, along with other senior executives. These are experiences that people want to share, he said. “They know what they already want digitally,” Spring said of shoppers. “They’re looking for inspiration when they come physically.”Saks Fifth Avenue rolled out its creation with a Broadway show, a festival of light on its 10-story home and fireworks, all with the obligatory handful of celebrities. In the windows, glammed-up mannequins wear colorful dresses amid surreal landscapes filled with presents and fake snow. The show, sponsored by Mastercard, was livestreamed by the retailer.

At Bergdorf, perhaps the most opulent department store of all, this year’s holiday windows evoke a trip to Candy Land. Inside, there are about 1 million pieces of candy (mostly fake). Why not 100,000 pieces? Or maybe 200,000? That just wasn’t enough for David Hoey, who runs the store’s visual presentation and has worked on windows for 22 years. “It had to be a million,” he said.

Hoey’s team spends about 70 percent of its annual resources, time and effort on the holidays—which is saying something, given how stunning Bergdorf’s windows can look the rest of the year. They overstuff the displays, using affluence and excess to force passers-by to stop and pull out their phones. It’s a version of shock and awe, only without high explosives.

“If you’re in the display business, you’re in the surprise business,” Hoey said.

The process starts even before the previous season ends, as the designers discuss preliminary ideas. There’s a meeting in February to choose the theme, and by the end of March they’ve already drawn sketches and begun developing prototypes. Production begins in April in numerous facilities the retailer commissions to help out. Eight months later, the art is finally installed at the store.

“I’m already thinking about what I want to do next year,” said Hoey. He has three ideas for 2019 themes—and it’s not even Christmas yet.