Holiday Windows Brighten a Bleak Retail Scene, but How Long Will They Last?

Passersby and tourists outside the holiday window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan earlier this month.

One of my fondest childhood memories is of my family’s annual holiday trip to St. Louis to see the department store windows. I was transfixed by the corner window at Famous-Barr, where model trains wound their way through a labyrinth of tunnels and bridges in a snow-covered mountain landscape.

So when I heard a couple of months ago that Lord & Taylor was selling the Fifth Avenue building that houses its flagship store to WeWork for $850 million, my first reaction was alarm: What would happen to the Lord & Taylor Christmas windows?

Even after a decades-long decline of America’s urban centers as shopping meccas, New York remains a redoubt of holiday tradition. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade officially kicks off the Christmas shopping season, and elaborate department store windows are still a major draw for tourists.

But as online shopping continues its relentless assault on brick-and-mortar retailers, even those traditions may be in peril. As the stores themselves decline, so too will the traditional holiday windows, toylands and visits to Santa Claus, predicted Mark A. Cohen, a former department store executive and director of retail studies at Columbia Business School.

“It would be a public relations disaster to eliminate them,” he said. But, he added, “I suspect they’ll quietly cut back, spend less, become less elaborate. And they’ll disappear when the companies themselves eventually disappear.”

It’s hard to fault struggling retailers for trying to recoup some of the cost, but part of the windows’ allure has always been that they were pure fantasies untainted by any overtly commercial appeal. Those days seem to have passed.

At Lord & Taylor, this year’s windows are co-branded by the Hallmark Channel, which is promoting its “Countdown to Christmas” holiday programming. Farther uptown, the windows at Saks Fifth Avenue not only carry the Mastercard logo, but the “Snow White” theme on display is basically a plug for the Walt Disney Company, which said it had entered a “promotional partnership’’ with Saks for the windows. (To both stores’ credit, there are no paid product placements in the windows, a trend that has infected some other holiday windows in the city.)

The crowds jostling to see Lord & Taylor’s displays used to be so large that ropes were deployed to maintain an orderly flow. But when I stopped by this week, the pedestrians on Fifth Avenue were rushing by, and few paused to take a look. No ropes were needed. Down the street, the repurposed B. Altman department store, which now houses the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, sat like a hulking ghost of Christmas past.

Still, there was plenty of greenery and lots of twinkling lights on the Lord & Taylor facade, and holiday music wafted over the sidewalk. The windows themselves were charming, although less elaborate than the ones I remembered from years past. Saks also featured an impressive full-facade light show after dusk. Its windows were attracting somewhat larger crowds during the day when I stopped by.

Tiffany Bourre, a spokeswoman for Hudson’s Bay, the parent company of Lord & Taylor and Saks, assured me the sale of the Lord & Taylor building to WeWork would not affect the window displays in the future, and that the company was committed to the store’s “rich history” of holiday traditions. After the sale, Lord & Taylor will still occupy some of the building. She said that the holiday windows and light show at Saks would continue “for years to come.”

Hudson’s Bay does not break out the cost of the window displays, but they are expensive. Ms. Bourre said the Lord & Taylor windows were created by nearly 75 artists, craftsmen and engineers who put in more than 35,000 hours on the project. She did not try to justify the expense in purely economic terms. “The holiday windows are considered a gift to the city,” she said.

Mr. Cohen said he got “all kinds of grief” from executives at Federated Department Stores after he spent over $100,000 to renovate the holiday windows at the flagship Lazarus department store in downtown Columbus, Ohio, in the early 1990s; at the time he was chairman and chief executive of Lazarus, then a division of Federated.

“The tradition needed to be reinvigorated,” he said. “I was playing to a conservative Midwestern audience that valued holiday traditions in an important way. We had a very profitable Christmas business.” (Mr. Cohen left Lazarus in 1994 and the downtown Columbus store closed in 2004 after Macy’s acquired Federated.)

The window displays and holiday traditions “were never overtly commercial,” said Jan Whitaker, the author of “Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class,” and other books about department stores. “In their heyday, they did a lot of things that weren’t directly linked to sales.”

The goal was to attract people to the stores with amenities like tearooms, restaurants, fashion shows and even nurseries. But the rise of Walmart and other discount chains in the mid-1960s, Ms. Whitaker said, “drove a stake into the heart of the downtown stores.” As shoppers focused on price above all else and old-line stores moved to the suburbs, she added, “The department stores dispensed with just about everything — the displays, the decorations, the free gift wrap and alterations, the free delivery.”

It now seems ironic, Ms. Whitaker continued, that department stores were once criticized for overcommercializing Christmas with their window displays. (A religious revival in the mid-1950s, she said, prompted a short-lived focus on angels, carolers and manger scenes.) “The department stores created a magical sense of occasion,” she said. “Families came and brought their children. Years later, they wouldn’t remember the gifts they got in any given year, but they remembered the windows. Those children became future customers.”

Shopping now, she said, is “not an experience.”

“It’s just about buying something at the lowest price,” she said. “ I find it kind of depressing, but there’s no point in wallowing in nostalgia.”

Mr. Cohen agreed. “We’ve crossed the Rubicon into gross commercialism,” he said. “There used to be an almost spiritual sense of kinship that gift-giving and gathering together enhanced, and the store displays and marketing tried to embrace that. Now the holiday is just the trigger for an extreme state of acquisitiveness. Holiday décor and atmosphere just get in the way of that.”

For holiday purists, it’s an ominous sign that traditional department stores are getting battered by the stock market. As of this week, Hudson’s Bay shares were down nearly 20 percent for the year. Macy’s stock was down about 28 percent. Both companies have attracted activist investors who have been pushing to use their real estate holdings to raise money. They have shown scant interest in maintaining expensive holiday traditions.

By comparison, shares in Best Buy, one of the few success stories among brick-and-mortar retailers, have gained nearly 56 percent this year. Best Buy has withstood the combined onslaught of Amazon and Walmart by focusing relentlessly on price, product selection, technical support and internet sales and marketing. It spends almost nothing on traditional holiday attractions.

A visit to the new Nordstrom Rack store just south of Herald Square may be a vision of Christmas future. Under the glare of unadorned florescent lights, it might as well have been January.

“I can’t possibly imagine these traditions ever coming back,” Ms. Whitaker said.

The Famous-Barr store I visited as a child was rebranded after Macy’s bought its parent company, the May Company, in 2005, and Macy’s closed the flagship downtown location in 2013. The holiday train window, with its seven passenger and freight trains and 300 feet of track, had been maintained since 1988 by a group of local model railroad enthusiasts, the American Flyer “S” Gaugers of St. Louis. After the Famous-Barr store closed, the group moved the display to the National Museum of Transportation, in Kirkwood, Mo., where it is now the centerpiece of a holiday train exhibit.

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