It was 61 degrees on a recent November evening, but the scaffolds outside Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue were trimmed with artificial fir, and Santa Claus himself was bopping with Liz Rodbell, the store’s president, to Austin Mahone’s “Mmm Yeah.”
Mr. Mahone, a clean-scrubbed pop star, was crooning it live to a gathering of hundreds of teenage girls, who were crowded behind the metal barricades that surrounded the makeshift theater, chirping “mmm, mmm, yeah, yeah” in response.
The occasion was the unveiling of Lord & Taylor’s holiday windows, an event that, like similar vernissages at competitors such as Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York, has increasingly become a big-budget spectacle. (Mr. Mahone’s performance, which ended with “The Christmas Song,” followed Nick Jonas’s from last year.)
After hugs and thanks, the curtains covering the windows were pulled back: a conveyor belt of iced cakes revolved through one window; a Victorian gingerbread house was hoisted by a platoon of gingerbread men (and a digital video montage of more) in another.
These windows — assembled in a cavernous shop (Santa’s Workshop meets “American Horror Story” set) located stories below Lord & Taylor’s 1914 building and lifted into place on original truck-size hydraulic elevators — are the store’s largest and most involved of the year. They have to be: For Lord & Taylor, as for most department stores, the holiday season is when the money gets made.
“The Christmas season is like the Super Bowl for us,” Ms. Rodbell said.
In the two weeks before Thanksgiving, all of New York’s major department stores would follow suit, revealing the holiday windows that have been, in some cases, more than a year in the making. It is a city tradition stretching back to the 19th century. R. H. Macy had Christmas-themed windows in his original store on 14th Street in the 1870s; this year, at Macy’s Herald Square, Snoopy and the Peanuts gang are recreating key scenes from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
None of this is news to the merchants who must plan and execute ever larger and more effective displays. The talk is jolly (these windows are a “gift to New York”), but the stakes are real. According to MasterCard SpendingPulse, which tracks retail sales across all payment types, 24 percent of annual department-store sales are made in November and December.
This year, the season arrives on a tide of bad news: Many department-store stocks have tumbled in recent months, inventories are bloated and customer spending is down (3.3 percent since February for department stores, according to SpendingPulse).
But here come the windows. Day after day in the lead-up to Thanksgiving (and the all-important Black Friday, so named — at least according to widely accepted legend — because it is the day when stores’ ledgers finally move from the red to the black), the New York department stores showed their long-in-the-works plans.
“I’ve actually never been to the actual unveiling of windows,” said the actress Jane Krakowski, at the debut of Bloomingdale’s Lexington Avenue windows, whose flowers and faceted sculptures, representing the five senses, had been designed in collaboration with her friend, the florist Jeff Leatham. A marching band had just finished playing. “As I drove up in the cab, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a thing!’”
In investment and planning, competition and anxiety, pomp and circumstance, a thing is what it is.
“This is the largest visual investment of the year, every year,” said Joshua Schulman, the president of Bergdorf Goodman, declining to specify an amount. It is such that, as with many stores, partnerships with outside companies help Bergdorf to underwrite it.
This year, the store’s window maestros Linda Fargo and David Hoey and their team worked with Swarovski to hand-set more than seven million crystals in its tableaus — about 70 times as many as bedazzled the most recent Oscars ceremony. The windows are Swarovski’s biggest collaboration ever: fantastical scenes in which a monkey fortune teller gazes into a crystal ball and a faux-pearl-studded Poseidon presides over the sea. The store ran a contest on its Instagram account, awarding a gift card to the person who came closest to guessing the total number of crystals used.
The theme, “Brilliant Holiday,” grew out of a need to promote its renovated jewelry salon, which will open in December. (The windows also celebrate Swarovski’s 120th anniversary.)
The “Brilliant” theme also dominates Bergdorf’s holiday catalog mailer and is expressed through limited-edition merchandise created for the store. Alice & Olivia designed a Swarovski-blinged jumpsuit ($898); Brett Heyman of Edie Parker, a selection of stone-crusted Atelier Swarovski clutches ($1,400 to $4,200); Badgley Mischka, an embroidered evening gown ($2,995).
The dresses created for the windows themselves, by Johnson Hartig of Libertine, Naeem Khan and CD Greene, are available for those flush enough to inquire. Last year, Ms. Fargo said, a client asked about a gown Dolce & Gabbana made for the window. (The high-five-figure price was ultimately too steep; it was donated to the Fashion Institute of Technology instead.)
Many stores still do not put products, even special-edition products, in their holiday windows, but the move to integrate windows into the store’s business and marketing is nearly universal. At Bloomingdale’s, Mr. Leatham will have pop-up stores selling his book, his candles and his Waterford crystal designs in select stores, a first for a window collaborator.
Even Lord & Taylor, the most traditionally minded of the stores, will make the concession to contemporary commerce: It will sell holiday gingerbread and sweets, inspired by its gingerbread and patisserie windows.
“I think with each consecutive year what gets more important is that we’ve become more and more holistic and integrated in how we approach holiday with the store,” Ms. Fargo said. “It’s not just a window discussion. Everyone throws the word ‘omni’ around. It’s kind of an omni world now.”
At Saks Fifth Avenue, the store’s new president, Marc Metrick, a veteran executive who took over in April, agreed.
“I’ve been at Saks for a long time,” he said. “I’ve seen all the iterations of the windows from when it was — I hate to say this — just windows.”
Saks spared no expense to make sure its holiday display dazzled. Its six central windows depict six icy wonders of the world (a frozen Taj Mahal, a cold Colosseum), with the seventh being the enormous Winter Palace erected in lights above them on the store’s Fifth Avenue facade.
The wintry theme will be expressed in all Saks stores (even in locales as unchilly as Palm Beach, Fla.), store mailers and new products commissioned or selected for gifting — like entry-level lip balms and holiday teddy bears, and $250,000 jewelry.
“What we’ve got to do is convert,” said Mark Briggs, the executive vice president of HBC Creative (the in-house promotional unit of Hudson’s Bay Company, the owner of Saks), noting that, after last year’s holiday event, foot traffic in the New York store increased. “What we don’t want is, ’Oh, that’s very nice,’ come to the door, click, click, click, they do Instagram, and go. What we’re doing is hopefully converting them to customers.”
Window tourism is, after all, a time-honored New York holiday tradition. According to NYC & Company, the city’s destination marketing organization, 30 percent of last year’s total visitation took place in the fourth quarter of the year, more than in any other season; typically five million visitors come to the city between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve alone.
Jon Harari, whose company, WindowsWear, offers guided tours of retail windows year-round, said that demand is two to three times greater during the holidays than the rest of the year, and he increases capacity of the tours that his company runs to 50 people, from 30. Mr. Harari added that the tours, which run five days a week for $34.99 a spot, were sold out until Dec. 5 even before Thanksgiving.
Windows alone will not carry stores from decline to success, but industry analysts believe that they can help.
“The department stores are facing Generation Z and the post-millennial,” said Oliver Chen, a managing director at the financial services firm Cowen and Company. “They’re thinking hard about bricks and clicks, the integration of on- and off-line. The reason for going to a store — the bar is higher. It’s really up to the retailers to provide the right balance of theater and commercial.”
Theater has long been one of the draws of the windows at Barneys. It was a hallmark of the windows under Simon Doonan, now the store’s creative ambassador at large (“There’s nothing I haven’t put in a window,” he said, including the writer David Rakoff, who saw “patients” behind glass as a costumed Sigmund Freud). Under Dennis Freedman, the current creative director, live performances have become standard.
Last year the holiday program, created in collaboration with the director Baz Luhrmann, featured ice skaters and a break-dancing elf; this year, sculptors in custom (and for-sale) Moncler puffer suits carve giant ice blocks in refrigerated windows. The theme is “Chillin’ Out,” and other windows feature a huge icicle sculpture by the glass artist Dale Chihuly and a slot-car track racing mini Lexuses (a sponsor) through the tundra.
“It is more ambitious than anything we’ve done,” Mr. Freedman said. “We did not chill out. In fact, I think we had more all-nighters.”
Nationwide, Barneys stores will have Chillin’ Out hangtags and gift wrap, Chillin’ Out holiday gift cards, Chillin’ Out specials at store restaurants and Chillin’ Out merchandising in print mailers and online. Chillin’ Out marshmallows on sticks, covered in white chocolate and coconut, will be given to shoppers each weekend.
While it is important that the windows reach even larger audiences digitally through online extensions and social media courtship, bringing crowds to the actual store remains a priority. Creating a destination “is potentially more important than ever,” said Mark Lee, the Barneys chief executive. “E-commerce and the digital world continues to boom, so to have a reason to visit the physical store, that is an important driver today.”
Though many executives drew a line between the art of window display and the science of commerce, Mr. Freedman believes that the right window leads to sales. “I absolutely do, 100 percent,” he said. “The reason you come in — you either go to our competition or you go here — is because it feels right. You walk in here and you relate to it.”
None of the retailers interviewed would share specific holiday numbers, but the ends, they suggested, justified the means.
“There’s a commercial element that makes it a viable way to spend our marketing dollars, for sure,” said Mr. Metrick of Saks, calling the holiday season “the biggest opportunity of the year.” A few days later, the company shut down a stretch of Fifth Avenue to inaugurate the first Winter Palace light show (it will continue every evening until Jan. 10) with fireworks and a 200-member chorus.
In the name of secrecy and the least possible traffic hindrance, the team tested the show in 4 a.m. run-throughs in the days before its start. A crowd of V.I.P.s, press and passers-by watched from across Fifth, sipping cocoa; a much larger group tuned in via an Internet live stream.
The night it was revealed, temperatures hovered in the 30s, and Mr. Metrick gave a short speech thanking his team and their partners, as the last major set of department-store windows after more than week of unveilings up and down the avenue were about to be seen.
Then he added the grace note: “I wouldn’t be a retailer if I didn’t remind everyone that after the show, the store is open.”