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Valley Fair mall unveils high-tech Santa display [San Jose Mercury News]
[November 16, 2012]

Valley Fair mall unveils high-tech Santa display [San Jose Mercury News]

(San Jose Mercury News (CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nov. 16--The long line of impatient children and stressed parents trying to keep their cool during a two-hour wait for a photo -- these are the makings of the nightmarish scene that can unfold during a visit to see Santa at the mall.

But that was before all things tablet joined the inventory at Santa's workshop.

On Thursday, Westfield Valley Fair in Santa Clara unveiled a tech-filled and interactive Santa display, a costly and amusement-filled installation that is part of a national retail trend to cater to the growing tech palate of youngsters and, retailers hope, convince parents to buy a new tablet or smartphone to put under the tree.

"They're trying to crush the old notion that they can't market to kids," said Marshal Cohen, a consumer behavior and retail expert with The NPD Group. "They're pulling out all the stops." And along the way, retailers like Amazon -- which is sponsoring the tech displays at Westfield shopping centers with its Kindle tablet -- are transforming long-held holiday traditions. Gone are the carefully carved wooden toys that Santa's workshops of yesteryear might have produced. And Rudolph has been replaced by a Mini Cooper convertible -- the vehicle used for Santa's entrance into Valley Fair on Thursday evening.

"We are seeing the new traditions being born right before our eyes," Cohen said.

When the nostalgia passes, though, parents and kids are left with a Santa experience that may be more amusing than any generation has had before, said Gavin Farnam, senior general manager of Valley Fair. Disneyland, he said, isn't the only place where families can be entertained from every direction while waiting in line.

The mall's new Santa setup features TV-size touch screens for kids to play with and Amazon employees circulate Kindles loaded with children's stories to entertain families as they wait. The centerpiece of the display is a 40-foot artificial tree that emits little bursts of evergreen smell and dances with reflective ornaments. The twinkling pathway leads to Santa, whose chair is a nook in a larger-than-life ornament.

The red-suited man almost -- almost -- gets lost in this feast for the senses.

Kids can take pictures of themselves from a computer mounted in a boulder-size ornament, and email the picture to family and friends as they wait in line.

The picture booth captivated Frans Paihonen of Finland who stopped to check out the display Thursday before the crowds arrived. With a little help from mom, the 7-year-old sent an e-card with his picture to his best friend back home. Frans and his sister play with iPads at home, said mom, Sari Paihonen, and the boy's fingers moved naturally across the touch screen.

Amazon Kindle helps fund the Santa displays at six Westfield malls. Mall authorities would not say how much the installation costs, but it is one of the company's most expensive -- perhaps its all-time priciest -- holiday decor investments.

The Westfield partnership is also an inroad for Amazon to market its new Kindle FreeTime, a kid-friendly feature for parents to set daily screen limits and content access. Cohen of The NPD Group said retailers are more aggressively marketing tech products to kids, knowing that while parents are buying, the kids are influencing the purchases.

"We live in a much more elaborate marketing culture," Cohen said. "Wherever there's a line, there's an opportunity." But the new Santa display is not just about marketing, Farnam said. The mall wants to give busy families an efficient Santa experience. Using a new photo FastPass, families can purchase their photos online and bypass part of the line. They can also send Christmas wish lists ahead of their visit, so Santa is briefed on what little Joey wants before the child even sits on his lap.

But there's one thing that's not different this year -- Santa. The same bearded man who has been the signature Valley Fair Santa for several years has returned, sitting with a certain majesty at the end of a long line of Kindles and gadgets.

Contact Heather Somerville at 925-977-8418. Follow her at

___ (c)2012 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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