Selfridges’ Christmas windows are always a visual extravaganza and this year the department store has brought in Santa Claus to cheer up the cash-strapped crowds. John Ryan gets a preview.

In case you hadn’t noticed – and being readers associated with the retail industry it would seem unlikely – Christmas is just a whisker away.
And almost everyone in the sector must be wishing even more fervently than normal that this year it turns out to be the season of goodwill or, at any rate, the point at which shoppers head off to buy gifts and high-margin merchandise for their nearest and dearest.

Getting shoppers in the mood for celebration is something that retailers spend a great amount of time and energy trying to achieve, to very mixed effect. How many cynical consumers breathe a quiet sigh when the first Yuletide bunting hits certain retailers’ windows in October? For retailers with a little more restraint, decking the halls (or, more accurately, the windows) does not take place until the beginning of November and, even when this happens, there are still those that choose to haul out the tinsel, robins and holly – all too depressing.

Fortunately, those opting to do this are the exception these days and Christmas is more generally marked by a burst of visual merchandising creativity and good looking displays. And in few UK shops is this more the case than Selfridges. This remains a retailer that shoppers will make a point of visiting Oxford Street for, just to have a gander at its windows.

But behind the ostentation that was revealed in the emporium’s 19 Christmas shop windows yesterday lies months of planning, thought and not a little expense. Selfridges creative manager Linda Hewson says that work on the new window scheme began on the same day that the Christmas windows were unveiled in 2007.

“It’s been a full year in the making,” she says. “For the last few years we’ve had slightly more fashion-based windows. Last year, although the result was fantastic, maybe the windows were not quite Christmassy enough.” With this in mind, Hewson and her team chose to make 2008 a year in which the traditional Christmas values would be reasserted, but with a contemporary take.

The chosen theme for this year is abundance, according to Hewson, with the strapline “The More the Merrier”. And this year, for the first time in more than 40 years, Santa is in Selfridges’ windows. Sitting in the design and visual merchandising studio in the upper reaches of the Oxford Street flagship, prior to seeing the windows, it’s hard not to feel a little downcast as this news is imparted. But the reality is different from what might be expected of a scheme featuring multiple iterations of the man with the white beard and red tunic.

The windows may all have a very traditional-looking Santa in them, but he is engaged in some distinctly un-Santa like activities. There are, for example, vignettes featuring Santa in a bubble bath, Santa at the disco, Santa in a traditional barbershop having a beard trim; heck, there’s even Santa at the sushi bar.

A smashing display

And on the way down to the windows, production manager Maria Katehis, responsible for the team that turns theme and plan into reality, points to the in-store Christmas treatment that has been installed. Overhead, giant red Christmas tree baubles are suspended across the ceiling, each with the name of a brand on it. All very regular, until you reach the atrium that houses the mid-shop escalators. Here the baubles appear to have been smashed, with the fragments hung in close proximity, as if they had just been broken.

The treatment – Christmas décor with a twist – acts as a scene-setter for what is to be found in the windows. Katehis points out that Christmas at Selfridges is about military precision and getting things done on time. “We’ve probably been in production for about four months now. One of the things we’ve been adamant about is that you don’t mess with Santa,” she says.

Fine words – and few would argue with the sentiment. But there was a hiccup a couple of weeks ago when five of the windows had to be closed because of the discovery of asbestos. Normally, this would mean months of messy work, with large numbers of hoardings and workmen in protective suits. By this week, however, all traces had been removed. Nothing, it appears, must get in the way of Christmas. Katehis says that the imminence of the season of goodwill acted as a powerful motivator for all concerned.

“It’s a big contract for everybody, so they’re not going to screw up,” as she puts it. Installing the windows has been a mammoth undertaking. Katehis says that the new scheme has taken eight days to put in, with teams working day and night shifts. Selfridges only introduced visual merchandising night shifts about three and a half years ago, she says. And the reason for its adoption is almost immediately apparent when you step inside the windows that face Oxford Street.

In one of the windows there is a mock-up of a London tube train carriage, complete with doors that open and close continuously. When in the metropolis and on his day off, it appears Santa has little need of his reindeer. The tube carriage illustrates precisely why this is not the kind of thing that can be taken across the shopfloor during trading hours: it’s just too big. As is the roll-top bath, in which Santa reclines in another window, filled with red baubles and intended to look like a bubble bath.

Then there are the old-fashioned barbers chairs, acquired via eBay, which have had to be reconditioned to make them ready for Santa to sit in. Even the boots worn by each of the Santas in the windows have been thought about. They were sourced online from an army surplus site, meaning that they are suitably scuffed and worn in, rather than over-shiny.

All in all, more than 200 contractors have been involved in creating these windows and a version of what is on show in Oxford Street can be found in the three regional stores, two in Manchester and one in Birmingham.

The question for Selfridges, as for every other retailer in these straitened times, is whether these windows will inspire shoppers to get out their
wallets. There can be no doubt that this scheme will be the best along Oxford Street and possibly in London. But the outcome of the retail quest for Christmas cash is more difficult to call. This visual merchandising fest cost the same this year as it did in 2007; whether sales remain at the same level is another matter entirely.