Christmas shoppers coaxed to spend by E-Santa and a sackful of innovations

Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield takes nothing for granted in hard times

Festooned with five miles of crystal icicles plus a grotto whose Santa sends a personalised video in advance to his young customers, the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield has been planning its drive for Christmas sales all year.

Tea dances, driving lessons in real cars for 11-year-olds and a three-hour student lock-in, in which 18,000 young people spent £500,000 in one evening, are part of a strategy which is taking nothing for granted in hard times.

“Shoppers are cautious in recession and they’re also very well-informed,” said Darren Pearce, the huge mall’s manager for four years, who is balancing much-placarded discounts – 40% at House of Fraser – with stabs at the “high end market” such as a fledgling champagne bar.

The strategy appears to be working. Footfall was up by 8% in November and 3% so far in December, in spite of obviously careful spending by shoppers.

Queuing in icy temperatures to see Santa, two families from Shire Green in Sheffield described a “no presents pact” agreed among adults, with gifts this year confined to the children.

Carol Phillips, here with granddaughter Roxanne, said: “We’re watching our spending but you can’t cut back when it comes to the kiddies. You save up for Christmas over the year.”

It was the same story at Lakeland, one of Meadowhall’s 310 shops and famous for its line in “can’t find them anywhere else” gifts. Jennifer Wesselby, a car sales administrator who had driven 90 miles from Peterborough with daughter Gemma, said: “I’m thinking before I buy which hasn’t always been the case and I’ve started early, so as not to panic towards the end.”

Gemma, also in good work at a food products mill, had only just started her shop but said: “We’re here all day and I’ve got a list. I’m going to get what I’ve decided and – I hope – not a lot more.”

Shoes and cosmetics are big buys at the moment with books doing well too, especially the clutch of sporting biographies including £20 life story of local Olympic heroine Jessica Ennis. Waterstones reported a couple of customers saying they had decided to use a real bookshop rather than Amazon because of the tax controversy.

But Amazon is hard to escape: the store’s Kindles – also a good seller – come via a deal with the online giant.

Kindles highlighted another feature of the way successful malls such as Meadowhall are meeting the internet challenge. Pearce, who started work at the 20-year-old centre 18 years ago, said: “I’ve got a couple of Kindles as Christmas presents and I used our web-order plus storebox collection system.”

For an extra £1 he – and other customers – can internet shop and pick up their buys from lockers at the mall. More than 60% combine such hi-tech shopping with a conventional wander under the icicles and 800,000 LED lights.

Making hay now is important to retailers according to Pearce, who emails every outlet daily with footfall, number of cars and other data. He said: “There is a general feeling that shops have got to secure the bulk of sales before Christmas. Boxing Day and the 27th will still be the busiest days of the year but the old notion of January sales is less the case now.”

Meadowhall has another trick up its sleeve after its recent 50% acquisition by Norway’s national pension fund, which is investing North Sea oil takings all over the world. The notion that the land of Father Christmas – or at least one of the main claimants to that title – actually owns Santa’s castle could play well with next year’s little Roxannes. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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