Visiting Santa Claus at the local shopping centre has always been a memorable experience for children. Shopping centres get to engage families whilst increasing shopper linger time to boost spending at traders. The concept of Santa visits can be traced back to the late 1800’s.

A brief history 

Thomas Nast Santa Clause illustration (1863) & James Edgar’s first Santa Clause costume (1890)


Business owner James Edgar decided to dress as Santa to amuse children visiting his department store in Brockton, Massachusetts. His initial Santa incarnation was in the form of a clown costume, but in 1890 he decided to bring the Santa depicted by cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harpers Weekly (in 1863) to life. This rotund Santa with a red suit and snowy white beard is the image we know Santa today as.

Vintage Santa Photo circa 1918 & photographer Art French (photo courtesy of Museum History & Industry 1986.5.25638.2.)

There are photographs immortalising the moment children met Santa dating back to 1918, and the commercialisation of it has been attributed to press photographer Art French. Based in Seattle, his office was across from a department store who decided to shift Santa Claus to its highly visible shop window on the street. It was here that French saw the popularity of the Santa visits and the idea struck him. The following year he decided to take a week off from the newspaper to set up a temporary photo studio in the department store window, with great success.

Santa visits today

The opportunity to meet Santa is still a popular family drawcard today, however, there are common challenges shopping centres face:

• How to differentiate the Christmas display from competing centres and Santa experiences
• How to attract families to the centre
• How to keep children engaged in queues
• How to provide an experience families can talk about and share online

We’ve put together some handy tips to get the most out of your Christmas activation:

5 ways to get more visitors to your Santa set


1. Get their attention: shopping centre marketing

Singing, talking animatronic deer and giant Santa selfie seat


Marketing plays an important role in getting visitors into the shopping centre and directing them to the Santa set. Alongside announcing on the centre website and a social media pages, remember to publish flyers and use in-store signage advising Santa’s visit times and location.

A typical Santa set is comprised of a throne, a backdrop, mailbox and a few display props such as elves, trees, snowmen etc. There will be variations of this set up depending on the centre budget and available space. To help differentiate from competing shopping centres, consider adding life-size props, such as animatronics and selfie pods which will capture the imagination of passing families. It will encourage engagement with the area and give them something to do whilst waiting for Santa.

See our blog on how selfie pods can increase shopping centre engagement.

2. Broaden the experience: sensory Santa

Santa Set

To have a broader community appeal, support local families with special needs children by offering a Sensory Santa experience. This caters for children with sensory processing disorders where they experience the world as either hypersensitive (over-reactive, sensory avoidance) or hyposensitive (under reactive, sensory seeker). Their reactions to crowded queue’s, bright lights and loud Christmas music can result in strong emotional behaviours. Hosting separate sessions with Santa will provide these children with an opportunity they would normally miss out on. Ensure your Sensory Santa experience is by appointment only to avoid queues and that it is pleasant for children.

For something fun and novel, offer a portrait with the fur family where visitors can have pet photos with Santa. The location of this type of experience is an important consideration, such as an air locked entrance or undercover area’s to keep pets contained and to avoid any health and safety issues. Ensure there are water bowls provided to keep pets hydrated, consider appointment slots to minimise clashes between nervous or unsocialised pets and be prepared for toilet accidents.

3. Eliminate the queues: Christmas activities

The best way to avoid queues for Santa photos is to have appointment slots. However, this may not work for all visitors, so for walk-ins, provide them with a pager that buzzes when it’s their turn to see Santa. This gives families the freedom to wander around the shopping centre rather than restrict the kids to one place, and it will also encourage visits to traders.

Extend the Santa set footprint to include an activity area to keep children occupied as they wait to meet Santa. Run activations such as:
• Storytelling
• Choir
• Santa letter writing
• Pin the red nose on Rudolph
• Musical chairs
• Colouring in stations

4. Santa photos: green screen

A photograph with Santa is all about capturing festive memories to look back on for years to come. Ensure you engage a professional photographer who has the correct lights and with experience taking portraits, preferably of children. Their professionalism and experience will make it a seamless experience resulting in quality photographs.

Discuss with the photographer the option of different types of photographs, such as funny/silly and storytelling shots. Talk about a green screen option, where in post-production a festive scene can be superimposed onto the background. Explore video options which will work well with the green screen too.

Be sure to include some subtle signage with the centre branding and suggested hashtags to encourage social media sharing.

5. Take home mementoes: certificate from Santa

Offer branded mementoes for families to take a part of the experience home with them. These can be complementary or an add-on opportunity. Ideas can include:

• Branded reindeer food
• Complimentary chocolates
• Personalised letter from Santa
• Good Girl/Boy Certificate from Santa
• A personalised Christmas book (pre-ordered)

Contact Us

We understand budget can be a limiting factor to you achieving what you want for your Santa set. If you would like to discuss how to plan the upgrade of an existing set or the purchase of a new one, chat to our commercial Christmas decorators on 1300 88 60 44.