Retailers can stand out during the holidays in a way that has nothing to do with a price tag: creativity in the display case.
And holiday displays aren't about driving sales — at least not directly, say people who keep up on retail trends. Instead, they can inspire nostalgia and wonder in even the most cynical of people, creating the ever-important "experience" that shoppers are after today, the industry watchers say.
Chances are, if a store looks the same on Nov. 18 as it did on Aug. 18, it's likely to be viewed as "just a warehouse of merchandise," said Bob Phibbs, a business strategist and customer service expert also known as the Retail Doctor.
If a store is missing thoughtful holiday signage and colors, it's also probably going to miss out on some valuable customers who can go to the next store to grab a piece of the holiday spirit.
Such things matter to shoppers, said Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail in New York. And it's
"There's something to be said about kind of going back to the good old days where you'd see the big displays in the Macy's windows."
Nichole McConnell, the Nebraska Furniture Mart's visual design strategy manager a way brick-and-mortar retailers can distinguish themselves from online outfits.
"If we were to buy simply on who has the lowest price, we'd know how to do that: We'd all either head to Walmart on sale days or Amazon on sale days," she said. "But people still want an experience."
Omaha retailers say they recognize that and have been working to get those displays up just in time for today, long known as the busiest holiday shopping day of the year.
At Nebraska Furniture Mart, shoppers will find a life-sized version of the home from the movie "A Christmas Story," complete with a Red Rider BB Gun, pink fluffy bunny pajamas and the infamous leg lamp. The Kansas City store features Mr. and Mrs. Claus' offices, and the new Texas store features Santa's sleigh and reindeer made of furniture.
"There's something to be said about kind of going back to the good old days where you'd see the big displays in the Macy's windows," said Nichole McConnell, the Mart's visual design strategy manager. "It was just to create an atmosphere and to get people in the mood and get them inspired to really participate in the Christmas season."
The displays include Nebraska Furniture Mart merchandise, but their primary purpose in and of themselves isn't to make sales, McConnell said. The aim is to draw onlookers for the experience, she said. (Of course, it's hoped those people will then shop the aisles.)
At Borsheims, displays also serve as a way to present options for gift buyers who might not know exactly what they're looking for, said the store's director of marketing, Adrienne Fay.
"It becomes a great story to tell," she said. "We're a large jewelry store — that's part of our business model — so sometimes when you walk in, the selection can be overwhelming."
Beyond the nostalgia a creative holiday display can spark, Corlett, the retail analyst, said that's indeed another purpose displays can serve.
"It's helping take some of the decision-making out of the shoppers' hands and offering them easy solutions," she said.
Brandon Beed and Nick Huff, owners of furniture and home decor store Hutch in Midtown Crossing, have spent at least 250 hours creating a miniature Omaha in their window display. It boasts the Omaha skyline — made from furniture boxes — with puffs of "snow" hanging and carrying small gift items.
"It's snowing gifts on the city of Omaha," Huff said. "We thought by hand-making our windows to represent our community and the holidays, that would kind of draw people in."
A nearby window display features metallic home accessories — on trend this season, Huff said — accompanied by cardboard cutouts of "Silver and Gold," a nod to the Christmas song.
Since the shop moved to its new space and began carrying new furniture and accessories in addition to vintage items, Huff said walk-in traffic is more important to the business. About 40 percent of the store's customers are so-called destination shoppers looking for furniture. About 60 percent walk in for small gift items like locally made candles, art and soaps.
Huff said the goal for most people during the holidays is to find thoughtful gifts for the people they care about.
"We feel if we are thoughtful with how we present our brand and our store, people would more likely come into our store to buy a thoughtful gift," Huff said.
Marie Clifford, owner of The Afternoon, also in Midtown Crossing, said she and employees often are antsy to get the Christmas merchandise out for customers, but they typically wait until after Halloween.
That's when they put up their Christmas decor, too, she said.
"I'm afraid of people complaining; that's why we try to hold ourselves back," Clifford said.
Midtown Crossing as a whole hosts its Holiday Lights Spectacular every night — a 20-minute light show with music that begins at 7 p.m.
It drives traffic to the shops but also helps provide a special memory for those who attend, said Molly Skold, vice president of marketing and communications for Midtown Crossing.
"This enables the local stars to provide something unique that nobody else can provide and also makes you feel good about where you live," Skold said.
Phibbs, the Retail Doctor, approves of that idea.
"Make it an event. ... Unless you're Scrooge, who doesn't like that?"
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