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Changes in retail habits mean mall Santas have to get creative

Santa Tom greets visitors during a holiday celebration at Cloverdale School. Myers works for the U.S. Defense Department by day. Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu

Ali Schultz hasn't shopped at a mall in years - and not even Santa Claus is enough to lure her back.

So this year, instead of lugging her two young children to the mall for photos with Santa, she's come up with an alternative: Video calls with Old Saint Nick, right from her living room.

"To be honest, I feel kind of bad sometimes because we've never taken them to the mall to see Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny," said Schultz, who lives in Omaha, Nebraska. "But it's an all-around pain. I just can't bring myself to do it."

As Americans do more of their buying online, shopping malls are losing their significance and taking with them a decades-old holiday staple: the Mall Santa.

Dozens of shopping malls have closed in the past decade, and another one in four is expected to go out of business by 2022, according to a recent report by Credit Suisse. Department store chains including Macy's, Sears and J.C. Penney are closing locations at a record clip, and other mall standards like Gymboree and the Limited have filed for bankruptcy, creating new challenges for portly, bearded men of a certain age who look to malls for seasonal work.

"The role of Santa, especially in the last five years, has really evolved," said Stephanie Cegielski, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "It's no longer enough to just have Santa sitting next to a Christmas tree in the middle of the mall."

Santas are finding ways to adapt, often trading in one steady mall gig for a series of hourly appearances. Some are taking up residence at stores like Bass Pro Shop and American Girl, or booking more private parties. Others are finding work at outdoor shopping centers, which come with the added challenge of inclimate weather.

And some, like Ed Taylor, a Los Angeles-based Santa in his 15th year, are increasingly going where the children are, by making video calls to their iPhones and iPads.

"People aren't shopping at the malls much anymore - they're shopping on devices," said Taylor, who also runs an online school for aspiring Santas. "Now they're connecting with Santa on their devices, too."

Taylor has outfitted his home office to look like Santa's workshop. He uses a web cam stationed nearby to talk with his young clients, some of whom like to give him tours of their homes or show him their Christmas trees. To make the casual conversations more believable, he often foregoes his red suit in favor of ruffled shirts and suspenders, and asks parents ahead of time for their childrens' names, interests and wish lists.

"Demand for video calls is at an all-time high," Taylor said. "That part of the business was not nearly as popular 10 or 15 years ago when malls were in their heyday, but it's exploding now. It's one of those things that's shifting as lifestyles change."

Taylor charges a flat-fee for video calls, typically $20 to $50, depending on the number of children and the proximity to Christmas. (In-person visits, by comparison, start at $250 for a half-hour. He has appeared at corporate events for Facebook and Pinterest, as well as parties hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Kimmel and the Los Angeles Lakers.)

Playing Santa is no small thing. Authenticity is important, as Taylor notes on his web site: "Oh, and the belly that jiggles like a bowl full of jelly, yes, I have that too."

A number of apps including Hello Santa and Message from Santa have emerged to connect youngsters to the North Pole. Some offer live, two-way conversations, while others, like Video Santa, which Schulz uses with her children, simply replay the same footage of Santa, over and over. "Hello there," says a man with a fake beard. "This is Santa Claus speaking. Now tell me, what do you want for Christmas?"

The 45-second call is the same every time. But her children, ages 1 and 3, don't seem to mind.

"We've called Santa six or seven times this month, and every time they're so, so excited," she said. "Why would I pay $20 for a photo at the mall when I can do this for free?"

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Santa arrived by helicopter in Panama City, Florida, by parachute in Thousand Oaks, California, and alongside a marching band in Minneapolis.

In Northern Virginia, he rode in on a fire truck. (In previous years, he'd made his debut at Tysons Corner Center by Tesla, Harley-Davidson and the Metro.)

These days, even when Santa shows up to the mall, he's got to do it in style. Mall Santas may be waning in popularity, but they're also increasingly critical to malls that are looking for ways to draw in customers during the holiday shopping season.

"It's always a big spectacle when Santa arrives, and modes of transportation have gotten splashier," said Cegielski of the International Council of Shopping Centers. "It's all part of making this a memorable experience."

An experience that might make people linger, that is. At Tysons Corner, for example, Santa can sometimes be seen mixing bloody marys behind the bar or styling dolls' hair at the American Girl store. Other malls have begun handing out restaurant-like buzzers to people in line, so they're free to wander to other stores while they wait.

"At the end of the day, Santa can have a real impact on a mall's stores," Cegielski said. "If families are having a good time, they'll stay to eat or shop."

Recruiting for mall Santa positions typically begins early in the year and can be a months-long process, according to Denise Conroy, chief executive of the Iconic Group, an Atlanta-based photography company that specializes in mall portraits. The company recruits twice as many Santas as it needs. ("These are usually men of a certain age with a certain build, so you have to think about ailments and health issues," she said. )

But as malls struggle to attract clientele, the company is more selective in where it places its Santas. This year, it's partnering with about 250 malls, down from 275 five years ago.

"We have had to prune our portfolio to focus on what's profitable," Conroy said.

There have been other changes, too, as Americans shun indoor malls for open-air shopping centers. Demand for Santas at outdoor venues is growing by roughly 10 percent each year, as younger families gravitate to city-center shopping areas. The changes are creating new challenges for Santa, who has to figure out how to stay comfortable outdoors.

"You worry sometimes that Santa will get too cold, but it's actually much tougher to manage temperatures in warm weather," Conroy said. "You don't want portable fans blowing on Santa if you've got a beautiful winter wonderland set."

Of course, you also don't want a Santa who's dripping in sweat. To make do, some Santas buy military-grade ice vests. Others wear sweat-absorbing beanies under their hats.

Bob Elkin, a Tampa-based Santa in his 25th year and the president of the International Brotherhood of Bearded Santas, says he asks that outdoor venues be shaded and have an electric outlet nearby, in case he needs to plug in a small fan.

"There are days when I feel like I'm going die in the heat," said Elkin, 76. "But I drink a lot of water to stay hydrated, and just keep going."

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Back in 2005 when Tom Myers put on his first red suit, there were few career paths for aspiring Kriss Kringles. Some specialized in movies or parades, but for the most part the bulk of the nation's Santas got jobs at the shopping malls, where they posed for photos with (bawling, kicking, screaming) children.

So that's what Myers did - and he was miserable.

"It was hours and hours of sheer boredom interrupted by panic and terror," said Myers, 65. "A lot of the time, it's like I was just falling asleep in my chair, waiting for people to show up."

A dozen years later, he's hit his stride as Santa. Myers - who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and works for the U.S. Defense Department by day - has scrapped the mall gig. In its place: Dozens of corporate events, homeowners associations gatherings and embassy parties. His rates begin at $200 for the first hour.

Myers is booked solid through January. On Christmas Eve, he'll begin working around noon and doesn't expect to return home until early the next morning.

"With the demise of the malls now, people are inviting Santa to more and more events," he said. "That's forced us to change, too. We're not just pretty faces anymore. We've got to be able to tell stories, sing songs, put on puppet shows. We've become performing Santas."

The job comes with its share of upkeep: Myers gets his beard bleached, toned and curled every two weeks - a process that takes two to three hours and costs $175. He has a rotating wardrobe of five red suits, 50 custom shirts and several pairs of boots that can accomodate any type of request: home visit, cookie-baking session, a day at the golf course.

As Santas rely more on piecemeal work - a birthday party here, a tree-lighting ceremony there - many say managing their careers has become a full-time job. Some hire agents to help them line up new gigs, or rely on lawyers to read through their many contracts. The Santa Claus Conservatory, which Taylor runs from his Los Angeles home, has begun adding online courses focused on social media, storytelling and sign language.

"A lot of it is professional development type stuff for Santa," he said. "How do you market yourself? What can you do on Facebook and Instagram to get more bookings? How do you make a website?"

He has more than 1,900 students, and says enrollment is growing rapidly.

"Demand is at an all-time high," he said. "Santa's got to keep up with the times."

Author Information: Abha Bhattarai is a business reporter for The Washington Post.