Free car service to and from malls. Personal shoppers to help you choose the right items. Donating a portion of what you spend to your favorite charity.
These are all enticements that U.S. retailers and mall owners are using to get shoppers in the door this season. Seeking an alternative to the heavy discounting that characterized last year's holiday push, shopping centers are touting convenience and special events. They're also aiming to use the human touch as an advantage in an age when customers can buy gifts with a few mouse clicks.
After an improving job market and falling fuel prices have put more money in shoppers' pockets, retailers are expecting their best holiday sales in three years. Still, stores aren't taking customers for granted during the two-month shopping blitz, when the industry books about a fifth of its annual revenue. For some malls that means sprucing up the traditional Santa with a "Frozen"-themed ice palace.
"We're in a commodity business, and to survive and thrive you have to differentiate yourself -- and you do that by offering different experiences," said Rick Caruso, chief executive officer of Caruso Affiliates, which owns the Grove mall in Los Angeles and the Americana Brand center in Glendale, California.
From Black Friday through Christmas Eve, the Grove and Americana Brand are offering free Uber service to and from the malls to anyone who spends more than $450 during his or her visit. Customers can reuse the service during the holiday season as many times as they want, provided they spend $450 each time they're driven to the malls, each of which has about 40 stores, in addition to restaurants and movie theaters.
The partnership with Uber may also help reduce parking jams at the Grove, which is considering renovating and expanding its garage space.
"That's still important, but I thought we should also figure out how to get customers here who wouldn't have to park," Caruso said.
Such perks are more common at upscale malls such as the Grove. The King of Prussia Mall, a high-end shopping center in Pennsylvania, also courts shoppers with extra services, such as a free personal shopper. Lower-end malls can't typically offer shoppers the white-glove treatment, and some are struggling to stay open at all. About a third of U.S. malls are rated a "C" or a "D" and will probably have to be significantly revamped if they hope to survive, according to Green Street Advisors.
Apparel chains such as J. Crew Group also are relying more on service, though as a year-round effort rather than a holiday promotion. J. Crew recently expanded its "Very Personal Stylist" program, which offers the convenience of shopping at its stores outside regular hours with the help of a personal shopper.
Customers can book an appointment online with a store stylist, who will accommodate them if they can't make regular store hours. They can also direct the stylist to pull certain looks and kinds of merchandise before they arrive for their appointment, which can save them more time. And there's complimentary delivery if customers spend $150 or more.
"Everyone is short on time, so the best way to continue to entice people to shop is by capitalizing on time-saving programs, whether it's parking, whether it's Uber, whether it's not having to wait in line," said Tom Julian, men's fashion director at the Doneger Group, a New York-based research firm.
"The mall is no longer a place you're walking through from one destination to another," he said. "It's more like a living room, lounge, entertainment arena -- where it used to be more like a train station."
Mall developer Taubman Centers aims to transform the the typical Santa experience -- where kids sit on his knee and talk about what they want for Christmas -- into an entertainment event that encourages gift buying.
As part of a deal with Walt Disney Co.'s "Frozen," Taubman has built 30-foot-tall ice palaces in 10 of its malls, complete with clips from the film, falling snow and a light show. Families have been waiting in line for up to five hours to see Santa and buy "Frozen" products, including toys and dress-up items, said William Taubman, chief operating officer of Taubman Center.
"Frozen" merchandise has overtaken Barbie as the most popular toy on holiday wishlists this year, according to a National Retail Federation survey released this week.
Other retailers are going after shoppers by linking charity and gift buying. That includes the Americana Manhasset shopping center on New York's Long Island. Shoppers at the mall's luxury stores, including London Jewelers and Ralph Lauren, can direct 25 percent of their purchase amount to 70 different local charities during the week after Black Friday.
On top of all the conveniences shoppers want, they also like knowing "a shopping destination is doing good for the community," said Doneger's Julian.