Holiday Windows: This Year the Fun Is Digital

Starting on Nov. 22, giant snowflakes will dance with bubbles to the sound of bells and chimes on New York's Fifth Avenue, beamed by digital projectors onto the facade of Saks' (SKS) flagship store. "It's going to be a real traffic stopper," says Saks' senior vice-president for marketing, Terron Schaefer, from his office overlooking St. Patrick's Cathedral. "We've warned the city." Saks' roughly two-minute production will run for six weeks. (Repeating every 13 minutes nightly, it's timed to avoid clashing with the tolling of the cathedral's bells.) That's longer than anyone has ever kept such a projection going, says Sean Reynolds, its co-creator and global creative director at marketing firm Iris Worldwide.

Saks is one of many New York stores enlisting Spaeth Design to help add some high-tech pizzazz to its holiday windows. Run by Chief Executive Officer David Spaeth, a mechanical and aeronautical engineer, the firm has been producing window wonderlands for four decades. Because it works with competing stores—this year, Saks, Lord & Taylor, and Neiman Marcus' Bergdorf Goodman are among its clients—each of its employees is required to sign a confidentiality agreement. Client visits to its 20,000-square-foot studio are staggered, and rivals' projects are covered with screens when customers arrive.

Until recently stores mostly used animated figures and a dollop of Santa Claus to draw holiday gawkers. Now more are turning to video to impress, says Sandy Spaeth, president of the family firm. Saks' projections will be accompanied by a 16-window tableau that includes two 3D video monitors that don't require the use of special glasses.

Last year shoppers could send letters to Santa using a touchscreen window in front of the 34th Street flagship Macy's (M) and read live tweets in the Saks windows from tech-savvy fans of the store. This Christmas, Macy's is using LED screens to tell the "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus" story, says Paul Olszewski, director of windows. Macy's Bloomingdale's unit is filling its Manhattan windows with 100 digital screens that play computer-generated animations of winter landscapes.

Bergdorf Goodman is staging a competition on its website that lets browsers create their own holiday window fantasy, using images tied to Bergdorf's 19th century vision of the future window theme. The winner will get a $2,500 gift card, and his or her creation will be displayed on social media sites and the store's blog. "Technology has made the final product more engaging and more fun for shoppers," says Alison Embrey Medina, executive editor of DDI magazine, which awards prizes to the best store windows in New York.

Not everyone is abandoning the old ways. Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York, prefers to handcraft. For 2010, he's tapping into the cultural obsession with celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali and Rachael Ray, caricaturing them with his signature papier-mâché figures. "Technology can seem really cold at holiday time," Doonan says. "There is so much digital imagery in people's lives. Windows provide a break from that."

The bottom line: New York's big retailers are increasingly using high-tech window displays to lure shoppers during the holiday season.

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