image: Bergdorf Goodman

image: Bergdorf Goodman

From a whimsical enchanted winter forest-scape to festive candy-laden backdrops, New York department stores have spent a year conjuring up eye-catching holiday window displays to draw in the likes of paying consumers and window-shoppers, alike. “Right when they start coming down, we start thinking about the vision for next year,” said Roe Palermo, Lord & Taylor’s divisional vice president for store visuals.

The famed Manhattan department store, which was founded in New York in 1826, has been boasting elaborate window displays since 1937 and estimates that on a daily basis, a million people pass by its New York flagships’ windows during the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Making Magic 

A large-scale collaborative efforts, Palermo and her team begin brainstorming with the store’s marketing, advertising and digital team 11 months ago to translate their ideas into a three-dimensional display. To aid in the process of creating the annual spectacles, Lord & Taylor built hydraulic lifts under each window, thereby allowing teams of artisans to work on new decorations in a sub-basement and then raise the platform to street level overnight for a dramatic unveiling event.

This year’s windows, which made their debut last month, “a whimsical winter journey through an Enchanted Forest” features five animated windows with hand-sculpted holiday animals and LED walls.

Creating the window displays for Macy’s is a tradition that dates back to the 1870’s, and similarly entails a lengthy process. Roya Sullivan, national director of window presentation for Macy’s says, “It starts about a year in advance, pushing ideas around, first-run, second-run, third-run renderings, and then hopefully we end up at an idea.”

In the process, they consider what’s been done in the past, along with current trends in fashion, music, media, as well as occasionally connecting the theme to notable events like the 50th anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which played out in last year’s windows.

“It all comes together with what’s trending and what will bring an emotion out for our customer,” she said.

Once decisions for scenes in the windows have been made, they are brought to life at a studio located in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with the help of a team of carpenters, artists, costumers, animatronics experts and other specialists that begin crafting them mid-summer. After months of work, the completed designs are boxed up and trucked over to 34th Street, where they are installed and assembled in the three weeks leading up to the reveal.

Not to be outdone, high-end fashion retailer, Saks Fifth Avenue, which falls under the umbrella of Hudson’s Bay, rang in its annual window display, “Land of 1000 Delights,” with 85 dancers. The windows are filled with recreations of scenes from Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet intermingled with designer wares and holiday candy. 

Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan celebrated the unveiling of its windows displaying the theme “Believe” with fireworks and confetti. Bergdorf Goodman, which is operated by Neiman Marcus Group, found inspiration from warmer climates, using cacti, palm leaves and jungle animals (pictured above).

Still yet, Barneys New York created displays (pictured below) hoping to promote “Love, Peace and Joy.” For the window design, Barneys enlisted artists and designers to interpret the theme. Amsterdam-based Studio Job created the Love Boat, a whimsical allusion to the 1970’s television show that encourages love and happiness. Projected onto the boat are rotating silhouettes of couples, both same- and opposite-sex, kissing. Artist Rob Pruitt’s take on the Love Peace Joy theme consists of a cheeky interpretation of a window into a couple’s bedroom.

The windows were done up at the retailer’s uptown and downtown locations and also involves a social aspect: The Barneys Foundation will donate to Amy Schumer’s Style Fund and Russell Westbrook’s Why Not? Foundation for every photo posted with the hashtag #LovePeaceJoyProject. 

Bloomingdale’s, which is owned by Macy’s, invited artists to create eight one-of-a-kind chandeliers for its window displays, and will be auctioning them off to benefit Child Mind Institute, with starting bids at $2,000.

Not in New York? That’s ok. Google has teamed up with 18 of the most renowned retail stores in New York (think: Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Tiffany, Burberry, Bergdorf Goodman, Michael Kors and Tory Burch, among others) to produce an online and mobile interactive tour of the most stunning store windows this season. 

Entitled, “Window Wonderland,” the partnership offers free audio and visual displays to accompany each set of windows, including 360-degree panoramic images and high-resolution galleries that enable viewers to “walk” past the windows in much the same way as you might if you were actually in New York.

Turning Foot Traffic into Sales

With 46 percent of all holiday shopping, browsing and buying this year to be done online, the question arises of whether consumers will actually be tempted to shop or whether these large scale, time-and-resource intensive products are merely cash pits.

Well, according to Marshal Cohen chief industry analyst of The NPD Group, Inc., is a nationally known expert on consumer behavior and the retail industry, “Impulse [buying] happens in the store 45 percent of the time; impulse [buying] happens online 18 percent of the time. It’s so critical for them to drive traffic to the store and then ultimately try to get you into the store, even if it means doing things the old-fashioned way. Using windows and holiday displays, and turning it into a tradition to make it have everlasting life is a critical thing for them to do.”

With this in mind, it should come as news to no one that modern day consumers demand more than just ‘things.’ They want experiences and for many New York department stores, their holiday windows are a perfect way to embrace this trend. John Klimkowski, Bloomingdale’s Operating VP of Visual Merchandising, says: “Holiday windows are a big part of Bloomingdale’s heritage and an annual tradition for so many of our customers. Our goal is to create a unique holiday experience that is like no other store in the world.”

And while Cohen says retailers do not make any direct revenue from displaying their windows, “there’s certainly increased traffic, plenty of loyalty and ultimately the store being thought of as a holiday headquarters—all to their benefit. They’re not doing it out of the goodness of their heart.”

That’s the business, creating a realistic holiday spectacle that catches the eyes of passersby over an intense, brief and all-important six-week period each year, says David Spaeth, owner and CEO of Spaeth Design, the firm tasked with producing Macy’s windows. It is up to retailers to turn that foot traffic into sales.