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The Christmas conundrum

Published:  23 February, 2012

Centres are going to be under more pressure than ever to deliver a cost-effective Christmas in 2012. So what styles and materials will give them the wow factor this year?

Christmas is the busiest and most important time of the year for shopping centres and getting the festival look right can be an instrumental part of the Christmas experience for consumers. Creating a spectacular display that stands out from the crowd may help to attract a wider demographic and pip local competition to those all-important Christmas shoppers.   

The dilemma for many is that Christmas is a time synonymous with tradition so how can you be innovative, putting a modern twist on the traditional, without losing sight of what Christmas means and alienating shoppers. Trends come and go but ultimately it’s about choosing what’s right for the centre and for its customers.

Stylus, a company that provides business intelligence, has highlighted four trends it expects to be big this year, and the predictions aren’t necessarily traditional. A ‘theatrical’ Christmas is at number one, consisting of title graphics, decorative scenic backdrops and embellished textiles. 

“Contemporary performing arts movements inspired by traditional circus and theatrical techniques has risen in popularity over the last decade and in turn the glamour of glittering costumes, exotic animals and freak shows have caused a resurgence of this genre’s aesthetic,” says Louise Chidgey, managing editor, product and design at Stylus. “Theatrical is extravagant, often surreal yet dazzling and dramatic.”

Next on the list is an “opulent, decadent and luxurious” concept taking inspiration from grandiose interiors. As Chidgey explains: “The use of materials from heavy velvets and silks to porcelain and cut and mirrored glass are worked alongside taxidermy, feathered sculptures, abundant fruit and glorious rich blooms.”  

In terms of lighting, using LEDs and fibre-optics in astrological colours for a cosmic effect, will, according to Stylus, create a magical glowing environment. And nature, taking inspiration from the earth’s landscape and promoting a more sustainable and stable future, is another big theme, focussing on elements of extreme winter weather, animals and insects, botany and indigenous materials for an earthy, rural and crafted look. 

According to the Christmasworld 2012 trend guide - ‘derived from the latest style statements of the international fashion and design avant-garde’ - this year is all about colour, with strong tones signalling optimism at a time of economic instability. Combining these colours with a range of light effects, materials and finishes, is recommended.

The guide splits the trends into four distinct zones - soft cloud, fancy folk, late night glam and cool vibrancy.  Soft cloud is elegant and feminine with neutral shades and milky pastels. Key colours include mint, beige, grey, white and orange, complemented by soft shapes and warm lighting. Fancy folk consists of deeper red, blue, green, purple and yellow colours for a lively and cheerful feel evocative of rural living, handmade creativity and folklore. Irregular textures, natural wood, embroidery and leather complete the look for a subtle vintage feel - in-line with Stylus’ ‘natural’ theme.

Purple, gold, orange, brown, deep blue and black are the desired colours for late night glam and should be combined with gloss, metallic and iridescent finishes. Crystals and fur, satin and velvet textures complete the look, matching Stylus’ ‘luxurious’ prediction. And bold, fluorescent colours – brilliant white, sunny yellow, green, pink and deep ink and cyan blues – are the mark of cool vibrancy, which works with minimalist or sculptural designs and monochrome surfaces like mirror or glass.  

Trends come and go but according to Linda Jones, managing director of West Yorkshire-based DDS, a traditional approach will always deliver a happy Christmas for shopping centre managers, particularly in tough times - relatively speaking, she has seen budgets fall to less than what they were in the 1980s. 

“Ahead of a possible fifth austerity Christmas, shopping centre managers are turning to their suppliers for clever solutions to their challenges: how to keep visitor numbers high during the most important few weeks in the retail calendar; how to appeal across all sectors of a diverse society and how to deliver sustainable, technically up-to-date installations on a tight budget,” explains Jones.  

In her experience, there is a single ‘super trend’ – new tradition – that endures year after year, which is flexible and adaptable to price, and still delivers magic to visitors young and old. 

“In our view, after years of modern, minimalist designs and colours, tradition is here to stay for 2012,” says Jones. “Indeed, at Christmasworld, classic decorations dominated the market with the Christmas tree at the heart of the scheme and nature being the primary source of inspiration. Central features were given a restrained finish with frosted or glitter effects which, with the recent introduction of the soft, nostalgic warm white LED, we believe will continue to be a crowd-pleasing concept for 2012.” 

Andrew Bontoft, financial director at The Seasonal Group, which has recently expanded with the opening of a second warehouse in Halifax, agrees that shopping centres are spending less while expecting more and that traditional is popular with centre managers with reds, greens and golds reining as the most popular colours.  

“Think about who you’re entertaining,” he suggests. “If you’re not careful you won’t appeal to those who get the most out of Christmas, and that’s children. You can’t go wrong with traditional characters like elves, reindeers and snow.” 

For Melanie Hurley, managing director at Melbry Events, who visited the Christmasworld exhibition in Frankfurt, the focus was very much on large, statement pieces and structures. But she also saw budget as an underlying theme. 

“With many shopping centres having had their budgets cut considerably over the last few years, sometimes by as much as 20-40 per cent, the focus is on procuring more for less,” she says. In her experience, people are starting to look to the Far East to find cheaper alternatives, with UK and European companies having to work harder to provide value. 

She gives an example: “Many of the Christmas-related creatures on display at Christmasworld, like penguins, polar bears and reindeers, were made of light-filled plastic tubing rather than the traditional faux fur because it’s a cheaper option, costing £150 per animal rather than the usual £300-£400.”    

She also noticed an upsurge in the number of coin-operated animatronics on display, giving shopping centres a chance to recoup funds or to further their CSR commitment by donating money to a charity.  

As well as larger statement pieces and budget options, Hurley cites a fun, multi-coloured, flowery theme as one of the focuses at Christmasworld, as well as the mainstay ice and winterland theme with ice rinks and ice cave grottos. 

Melbry events has begun to do seasonal work with garden centres and Hurley thinks they could be ones to watch in the decorations and display arena. They do have one distinct advantage in that they often sell the type of decorations that can be used in displays, saving on costs.  

“Garden centres are becoming more savvy and they’re great on promotion,” says Hurley. “I also think shopping centres could learn from retail – in New York people queue to see the wonderful window displays and Harrods’ looked fantastic with their white fur and Swarovski crystal displays. When I was a little girl, we used to go and see the window display at Hamleys on Regent Street every Christmas, so a well-thought out display can really draw the crowds.”  

For Ian Stead, CEO at Fuzzwire, an amalgamation of LDJ Design & Display and Centre Design, Christmas isn’t about trends but bespoke designs that are right for the centre and its shoppers. Fuzzwire is working on its own research into what consumers want when it comes to Christmas decorations – what they like, how they make them feel, and whether or not they’d go to a competitor if their decorations were better – so they can assure clients that what they’re getting will be a return on investment, by increasing both footfall and spend. 

He too warns clients not to tamper with Christmas or lose sight of what it means: “It’s a traditional time of the year,” he says. “There are core values of what Christmas is all about. There have been instances where shopping centres have changed a traditional display and there’s been a negative backlash from customers, especially in community centres – don’t take quantum leaps when you’re not ready. Having said that, that doesn’t mean to say you can’t be innovative.” 

Before the announcement of the merger in January, Centre Design completed its first major project in North America, with an installation at the Eaton Centre in Toronto, a four-storey mall, which stretches for two full city blocks and attracts more than 1m visitors per week. 

Breaking with tradition, the theme selected involved giant floor sculptures rather than suspended displays. The main focal points were a number of dramatic giant reindeer sculptures of up to 12 metres in height, which shoppers could walk through as well as around, with all decorative elements lit by low-power demand LEDs. The reindeer were supplemented by cascades of stars suspended from the glass roof. 

In another example, with a brief to create something warm, welcoming and honest for the Harlequin in Watford, and something that was truly unique and unlike anything found in neighbouring shopping centres, Fuzzwire came up with a simple theme based around a series of seasonal words. ‘Merry’, ‘Santa’, ‘Ho Ho Ho’, ‘Noel’ and ‘Christmas’ were transformed into 3D sculptures, up to 12m long and rendered in bold, bright colours.  

In-line with its commitment to be at the forefront of innovation, Fuzzwire sponsors an MA in creative practice for the narrative environment at St Martin’s College of Art & Design, where students are taught to utilise space and tell stories through design. 

Students work on coursework set by Fuzzwire: “They’re encouraged to experiment with raw materials and could have their designs trialled in different centres, in the hope they’ll deliver the designs of the future,” explains Stead. “They use their knowledge of what customers want to deliver magic and create that ‘wow’ factor.”  

Stead predicts that interactivity will become more and more popular along with 3D and 4D technology, particularly when it comes to animated displays like photo apps that involve consumers and will appeal to children, adults and families alike. He gives interactive dance floors and workshops where people can make their own Christmas cards as other examples.  

Lee Harvey, managing director at Piggotts, concurs. Displays that people can interact with using their mobile phones – a parent might text in saying what their child wants for Christmas, with the message displayed for all to see on an LED screen – is an area he sees growing. Or even a virtual cracker that, through the actions of customers, looks as though it’s being physically pulled apart. 

The Seasonal Group is trying out new technology with the latest colour-changing programmable LEDs, combining colour, animation and synchronised music, something Bontoft describes as “mesmerising”. Children were also enchanted by a giant video wall at Cameron Toll shopping centre in Scotland which showed Santa’s sleigh flying across it.  

Harvey thinks people are moving away from static displays, opting instead for animations that satisfy a number of functions. And like other experts, he’s seeing a resurgence in traditional: “Over the last 12 years there’s been an appetite for contemporary designs with no traditional Christmas message, but we’re starting to see an appetite to return to traditional with decorations including bells and holly. In terms of colour, ice white and warm white remain the most popular choice, along with reds, greens, golds, purples and pinks.” 

James Glancy of James Glancy Design is a stickler for bespoke. His company introduced at least 10 distinct new designs last year, all created specifically to match the marketing goals of clients. 

“We don’t do mass-market, off the shelf designs that are available in three colours and three sizes,” says Glancy. “People want individuality and originality. They don’t want to drive to a centre five miles away and see the same decorations.” 

He gave examples of recent projects that were unique and traditional as well as being innovative, including sound and light displays in Carnaby Street and at Cabot Circus, huge reflective-gold inflatable baubles, pendants and stars at the Peacocks in Woking, what Glancy describes as a “chic, vegetative” design at Grand Arcade in Cambridge with a canopy of vegetation swooping over key parts of the centre, and a ‘mirror ball explosion’ at London’s One New Change. 

The Seasonal Group’s Bontoft has seen a rise in fantasy and Disney film themes like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Aladdin and Snow White. In one centre, The Seasonal Group created a Narnia display based on The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, where children could step through the magical wardrobe and move from scene to scene complete with polar bears and the Ice Queen. 

These kinds of displays can be used to draw footfall into under-used parts of the mall. In one centre a series of displays were placed throughout the mall with a character in each section telling parts of a story linked to a competition. Children answered questions based on the story and were entered into a prize draw if they got the answers right, encouraging them to visit all 13 displays. In this instance, Christmas was used as a means to utilise space and improve footfall in quieter areas, in-turn keeping retailers happy. 

Bontoft describes toys as another fail-safe option. One Middle East centre commissioned an oversized toy display for its atrium including giant chess pieces, dominos and alphabet blocks. And more and more centres are choosing their theme based on the pantomime at the local theatre, for cross-promotion purposes.

With a team of qualified engineers, sculptors, joiners and electricians, The Seasonal Group can bring to life almost any design, having recently made bespoke models of the Grinch and a full-sized Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car. 

Of course there will be demand for a certain palette of colours, styles and themes this year, as dictated by shows like Christmasworld, but the centres that do their own thing, tasking suppliers with bespoke solutions, could come out on top. Off-the-shelf options that can be seen on every high street won’t create a point of difference or add to the excitement of children who are often the ones to get the most out of Christmas. Manufacturers and suppliers are striving to offer value, and according to the experts, tradition is back to stay.