This Holiday Season, Go Big

by Phil Wrzesinski

One of the best moves I ever made was putting my staff in charge of our special events and holiday decorations. I had a bunch of go-getters, and they wanted to go whole hog for everything. Don’t get me wrong: I loved in-store events and special holidays just as much as my staff did. I was just too busy to plan the details needed to make those activities shine. My staff, however, consistently blew me away with their creativity.

For National Train Day, for instance, we used duct tape to make railroad tracks around the store that led to each of our special play areas. We even made a Toy House Train backdrop for photo ops. For another in-store event, Breyer Horse Day, we created a hobby-horse jumping arena with striped fences, bales of hay, and even water jumps. During our “Frozen” Spectacular, there were glittery snowflakes everywhere and Disney Princesses in every corner of the store. The local symphony sent us a Disney Quartet to play a Disney concert. We packed more than 500 people in the store that day!

No detail was ever spared. It was “go-big-or-go-home!” every time out. Even the frosting on the sugar cookies we gave away was specific to the theme of the day.

With a staff like that, you can guess how our store looked for Christmas.

Create holiday emotion

Have you ever walked into a shop in which the decorations looked “phoned in”? Like the staff put up whatever the corporate office sent them, and then moved on? You probably felt like they didn’t really care about the holiday – the garland and the lights were old, and hung without care. The seasonal merchandise displays were cluttered and messy. It was clear that the store and its staff never got into the spirit of the holiday. You felt it and it didn’t feel good.

Contrast that idea to the stores that embrace the holidays fully. You can feel the energy. Yeah, it can be a little over-the-top sometimes, but only the true Scrooges walk out of those stores not feeling a little better than when they came in.

The most important element of branding is the feeling your store creates for customers when they enter and when they leave. You can control that feeling with the effort you put into the holidays and other special events. If you don’t embrace the holidays, your customers will feel it. If you fully embrace the holidays, your customers will feel that, too.

Which feeling would you rather they experience?

It’s show time

This is the season all retailers have circled on their calendars. The next few months can make or break your year. You’re entering the holiday selling quarter and you only get one shot at doing it right. First Halloween, then Thanksgiving, then the grand-daddy of them all – Christmas! You need to embrace them and go all in.

Go all in to show customers you love this season as much – or more – than they do. Go all in so they realize you care about them and the children for whom they’re buying. You know that they’re special – show them! Go all in so shoppers see that you care about your business and want it to succeed. Go all in because when you do, customers get fired up and enthusiastic about the gifts they are buying, and they will buy more.

Embracing the holidays is the minimum customers expect of a top-notch store like yours. Exceeding their expectations earns you loyalty, and the repeat and referral customers who go along with it. If you want this to be your best holiday season ever, go all in, and then do one more thing they didn’t expect, like,
• serve coffee or espresso,
• give out bottled water,
• distribute free clown noses,
• have a costume parade with candy and prizes the Saturday before Halloween,
• add some gift labels to each purchase,
• throw in free gift wrapping (if you aren’t already doing that),
• play kids’ movies and cartoons in your store the week before Thanksgiving while their parents shop,
• do an in-store turkey coloring activity,
• decorate Christmas-tree ornaments,
• host a food drive in early November, and offer 1 percent for every can up to 5 or even 10 percent,
• have a Bring-Your-Pet-to-Shop day and give out treats, and
• wear silly hats.

The more you embrace the holidays and get into the spirit, the more you make your store new, fresh, hip and happening. Your customers will notice the effort you do (or don’t) put into this season. They will reward you in kind.

If you have a staff like mine, give them free reign to do up the holiday right. Then, embrace everything they do and get into the spirit yourself. If you don’t have the staff to do that (yet), you’ll have to lead the charge. Be the holiday cheerleader. The more you embrace it, the more your staff and customers will, too.

Remember: no one loved Scrooge until he became full of the holiday spirit. Be that person. This is your season – go big, bigger, the biggest. It pays off in the end.

Phil is the former owner of Toy House and Baby Too in Jackson, Michigan, one of “The 25 best independent stores in America” says George Whalin in his book Retail Superstars. Now Phil takes the lessons he learned in a lifetime of retail to help other independent merchants and small businesses find their success. Learn more at

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