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Photos: NYC Holiday Windows

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  1. Saks in the city

    Holiday shoppers pass by window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. Saks, at Fifth near 49th Street, has digital projectors beaming images of translucent white snowflakes and bubbles onto the store's facade. The images interact with the architecture in a magical two and a-half minute music and light show that takes place every 10 minutes from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Holiday fantasy

    A woman poses for a photo in front of a window display at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. The store, on Fifth Avenue and 58th Street, features holiday window designs inspired by fantasy travel to far-flung places and are titled "Wish You Were Here." David Hoey, Bergdorf Goodman senior director of visual presentation and window design, describes the holiday look as a mash-up of unexpected arrivals and departures, drawing on influences as varied as Roman mythology and the movies. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. "Yes, Virginia..."

    Onlookers gaze at holiday window displays at Macy's in New York. Macy's theme this year is based on the real story of Viginia O'Hanlon, an eight-year-old girl who wrote to the New York Sun in 1897 asking the newspaper whether Santa Claus is real. "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," the paper responded with the now-classic phrase. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. It's beginning to look a lot like ...

    A miniature-scale display is featured at Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue near 38th Street in New York. The display offers 12 mechanical tableaus illustrating Christmas scenes set in the city, inspired by favorite memories that customers shared with the store. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A little to the left

    Under the direction of window designer David Boey, an employee makes adjustments to a window display at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Taking it all in

    People study a display at Lord & Taylor in New York. "Share the Joy" includes candy canes, wrapped gifts, snowy streets, snowmen, wreath-bedecked homes, Santa's sleigh with reindeer and decorated trees. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Reflections of the holiday

    Saks enlisted the help of an "experiential" marketing agency to spice up the Fifth Avenue store exterior store in New York. The outcome is a digital delight: snowflakes and bubbles pirouette to a remixed version of "Carol of the Bells" and interact with the architecture, with bubbles getting "stuck" under windowsills and snow piling up on them. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Saks rocks

    Upscale stores bring upscale windows. A glance at the Saks display in New York shows a reflection of Rockefeller Center with an octopus theme. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Dazzling display

    The window display at Tiffany's, on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street in New York, takes on a fairy-tale theme, with a decorative heart necklace and a hummingbird holding a bejeweled key. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. It's OK to stare

    Clodagh O'Sullivan and her son Jack, 2, both of Queens, New York, share the magic that is the holiday season, taking in a display at Lord & Taylor, on Fifth Avenue. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Work of art

    Taking a page from art-watchers at the Guggenheim or the Whitney, people gather to study a window display outside Bergdorf Goodman in New York. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Holiday fantasy

    Bergdorf Goodman features a window that is a kaleidoscope of color. The "Wish You Were Here" display is created mostly from paper. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: People look at window displays at shops in Manhattan.
    Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com
    Above: Slideshow (12) New York City and the holidays
  2. Jeff Parker / Florida Today, Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (6) Holiday Shopping
Image: Clodagh O'Sullivan
Jonathan D. Woods  /  msnbc.com
Clodagh O'Sullivan and her son Jack, 2, of New York take in a holiday window  display at Lord & Taylor, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 12/8/2010 5:09:23 PM ET 2010-12-08T22:09:23

For many Americans, it's going to take more than an elaborately decorated department store window to get them to part with their money this holiday season.

Something like a 75 percent off coupon from CouponCabin.com, perhaps? Or maybe a $7,000 handbag marked down to $350 on Gilt.com?

Yet even as consumers migrate to online discount sites and big-box stores, many retailers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars creating elaborate window displays with little evidence they do much if anything to boost holiday sales.

Saks Fifth Avenue, for example, spent more than $350,000 on decorating 16 different windows with one-of-a-kind designer frocks by Proenza Schouler, Oscar de la Renta and Alexander McQueen and gigantic projectors displaying images of snowflakes onto the façade of the building, said Jacques Rosas, chief executive of Shop Studios, a window display company in New York.

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Experts say it's hard to tell whether retailers get a good return on such investments – and there is plenty of reason to think fancy windows draw mainly gawkers rather than shoppers.

“Unless you are telling me that dress in the window is $100, I’m not going into the store to buy anything,” said window-shopper Jennifer Munro, who was enjoying a display at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. “I come here mostly to get into the holiday spirit, but most of my shopping takes place online. That’s where all the deals are.”

So why do retailers still do it?

Perhaps it is a sense of tradition. Holiday windows date back as far as the 1840s, when stores decorated their windows with evergreen and wrapped gifts. In the 18070s L.P. Tibbals' toy store installed mechanical steam toy trains for the public to gape at, and Macy’s spent close to $10,000 decorating its holiday windows with imported dolls.

But a more likely justification for spending on windows is that retailers hope to drive positive word-of-mouth – including on blogs and websites that cover retailing like trendhunter.com.

Related: Shoppers treating themselves to lattes and lacy bras

“When it’s all finished, I like to stand outside and listen to what the crowd is saying about the windows,” says David Hoey, “window master” and senior director at Bergdorf Goodman, which has some of the most buzzworthy windows of the season.

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“Ninety-nine percent of the time they aren’t saying anything because they are all bloggers and they are uploading images to their sites and typing away on their smart phone keyboards. And that’s the kind of excitement I am happy with.”

Bergdorf, known for its baroquely opulent displays, spent close to $300,000 installing two tons of quartz crystal, dressing the mannequins in designer duds and flying in real antiques from overseas for its “Wish You Were Here” themed windows at its flagship store. The windows take a whimsical and detailed look at what space travel might have looked like to people imagining it more than a century ago.

Terron Schaefer, chief creative officer at Saks, estimates nearly a million people a day will walk by the holiday windows at the luxury retailer this season, versus 400,000 to 500,000 on a regular day.

“Our store windows read like a look-book come to life,” said Schaefer. “We made sure to include gifting items in the windows so when people walk by they can get ideas on what to give.”

Schaefer said, however, that the top-selling gifts at Saks Fifth Avenue don’t necessarily include the “fantasy” items in the window, but more affordable items such as the Saks Fifth Avenue branded items.

For example, private label cashmere sweaters for men and women, as well as makeup gift sets and fragrances ranging from $50 to $175, are all in high demand, but not displayed behind the glass panes.

Likewise, a store sales associate at Neiman Marcus' flagship store in Dallas said that despite the consistent pedestrian traffic outside the store, sales of high-end apparel and home items have been mediocre.

“It’s pretty much a ghost town, especially when you get to the home goods and higher-end apparel floors,” said the associate, who requested anonymity. “Everyone comes to look at the windows and then leaves. Prices are still too high for them to buy anything.”

Brian Sozzi, equity analyst at Wall Street Strategies, pointed out that websites with large pictures of merchandise, zoom capabilities and what seems like a limitless amount of product have taken over the role that store windows used to play years ago.

“Trust is a big factor when it comes to online shopping,” says Sozzi. “Retailers who engage in an 'interconnected retail experience' and make the customer feel like they haven’t left the experience of being inside the store walls, even though [the customer is] surfing the site, are the ones that will retain their customers both on and off line.”

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Clearly retailers have absorbed this message. Macy’s Saks and Neiman Marcus all have reported strong sales growth recently and have credited online sales, among other factors. Macy’s chief financial officer referred to the company’s digital marketing strategy including the aggressive use of social media.

Macy's holiday window display, an adaptation of “A Miracle on 34th Street” is part of a campaign including an animated network special, a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and videos on YouTube. The mission is to inspire a sentiment of hope and excitement during a down economy.

“When the mayor of New York says, ‘If you haven’t seen Macy's you haven’t seen New York,'” you have a lot to live up to,” said Martine Reardon, executive vice president of marketing for Macy’s. “Our store is just as much a destination in the city as the Empire State Building and Central Park during the holidays, and we want to feed the excitement.”

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Video: Saks CEO on Luxury Retail Sector

Explainer: 12 hit toys of Christmases past

  • Hers & Mine Antiques Mall

    The new video game systems Microsoft Kinect and PlayStation Move will almost certainly be huge sellers — the toys most likely to cause a panic among eager shoppers over the next month.

    (Mnsbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

    Then again, the media darling this Christmas could just as easily be a bizarre-looking ball of fur that spouts insults in a made-up language. That’s the fun of hot holiday toys. No one knows that a Furby doll or a Tickle Me Elmo will cause otherwise rational shoppers to trample their fellow man until the free market decides for itself.

    Here are a dozen of the most popular, groundbreaking and notorious holiday toys from the past 80 years. We looked beyond the most famous toys of all time, choosing items that peaked in popularity just before the holiday season, experienced shortages around Christmas and in many cases quickly fell out of favor after the hype was over. (Which explains why Teddy Ruxpin made this list, while Barbie dolls and hula hoops didn’t.)

    Also included is the original retail price was included for each toy, and what collectors are asking for the toy on eBay. (A median price was chosen in most cases.) As you’ll see, it’s much better to have a “Star Wars” action figure in its original packaging than a Zhu Zhu Pet …

  • Shirley Temple doll (1934)

    Hers & Mine Antiques Mall

    The hype: Who can we blame for the holiday toy madness that makes children and parents insane around the holidays? Shirley Temple. The first celebrity-driven doll was manufactured by The Ideal Toy and Novelty Company when Temple was 6 years old, in the third year of her movie career. The demand became huge after the child actor’s breakout film, “Bright Eyes,” was released three days before Christmas. Ideal sold a reported $45 million worth of Shirley Temple dolls in seven years.

    Price in 1934: $2.89 to $5.79

    eBay price in 2010: $1,545.50

    Bet you didn’t know … While the actress was the model for the doll, Ideal didn’t think to put Temple’s name on the package until after the first generation.

    Where are they now? Sales continued until 1941, with several re-releases during the past 70 years.

  • Chatty Cathy (1960)

    Courtesy of Hankiesandmore.com

    The hype: In a move that charmed a generation of young girls — and a few future horror film directors — the Mattel Corporation put a phonograph in an otherwise unremarkable doll, allowing her to say 11 different lines when a ring was pulled. The two neediest lines: “Do you love me?” and “Please brush my hair!” Cathy was the inspiration for the Talking Tina doll (“I’m Talking Tina and I’m going to kill you”) in a memorable 1963 episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

    Price in 1960: $19.90

    eBay price in 2010: $195.00

    Bet you didn’t know … A 1969 reissue used the voice of Maureen McCormick from “The Brady Bunch.” Voice actress June Foray provided the voices of both Chatty Cathy and Talking Tina.

    Where are they now? Sales continued until 1965, with updates in the 1970s and 1980s. Most surviving Chatty Cathys are mute; several of the vital mechanisms weren’t built to last.

  • G.I. Joe (1964)

    Anonymous  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS

    The hype: After watching the Barbie line of toys become a market force, Hasbro came up with G.I. Joe, a foot-tall military action figure (don’t call it a doll!) with a name inspired by the 1945 movie “The Story of G.I. Joe.” The figures came with names like “Ace” and “Rocky,” and didn’t have much variety — developing scuba diving, astronaut and other themes in subsequent years. The figures were in huge demand out of the gate, making a then-impressive $16.9 million in sales in 1964.

    Price in 1964: $4

    eBay price in 2010: $210

    Bet you didn’t know … The makers of G.I. Joe owe a lot to “Star Wars” for their longevity. The much derided 3 3/4-inch G.I. Joe figures released in 1982 were a huge hit, no doubt from kids used to collecting similarly sized “Star Wars” figures.

    Where are they now? The G.I. Joe franchise does well in times of peace and poorly in times of war. Sales suffered during the Vietnam War, but the doll made a comeback in the 1980s — and again after the release of last year’s live action “G.I. Joe” movie.

  • “Star Wars” action figures (1977)

    Darth Vader
    Juan Garcia  /  KRT/Newscom

    The hype: Whatever you think about his movies, George Lucas was a marketing genius. Since toymaker Kenner didn’t have time to manufacture more than a few coloring books and board games after the surprise success of “Star Wars,” Lucas still made millions selling vouchers for 3 3/4-inch tall action figures. Bright-eyed children on Christmas morning unwrapped something called an “Early Bird Certificate Package,” with information about the figures they would receive in a few months, but no actual toy. Original figures ranged from the obvious (Darth Vader) to the obscure (Death Star Commander).

    Price in 1977: $2.79

    eBay price in 2010: $3.99 to $1,200

    Bet you didn’t know … More than three decades later, two of the most valuable action figures are manufacturing screw-ups: a Luke Skywalker with brown hair and a Han Solo whose head is too small.

    Where are they now? “Star Wars” is arguably bigger than ever, with help from “The Clone Wars” cartoon series. Most of the 12 original figures have been re-released in a “Star Wars” classics line.

  • Cabbage Patch Kids (1983)

    Cabbage Patch Kid
    Jacques Chenet  /  Getty

    The hype: Up until this point, there had been fad toys, but people had mostly acted like members of a civilized society in their quest for them. That all ended in 1983, when Coleco’s Cabbage Patch Kids became a huge media-fueled hit, causing a mad scramble for the few million of pudgy-cheeked dolls that were produced before Christmas. Demand from children who wanted to “adopt” a doll led to adult fistfights and price gouging, with some Cabbage Patch Kids selling on the black market for 10 times their retail price. The fad got even bigger the next year; 18 million Cabbage Patch Kids were sold in 1984.

    Price in 1982: $25

    eBay price in 2010: $7.99 to $499

    Bet you didn’t know … One subsequent high-profile failure for the franchise was the Talking Cabbage Patch Kids, which used new technology that allowed more than one doll to converse with one another.

    Where are they now? Coleco went bankrupt in 1988, mostly because of failed video game and computer ventures. Cabbage Patch Kids are still sold by Play Around.

  • Transformers (1984)

    Anonymous  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS

    The hype: This cartoon about warring factions of anthropomorphic robots from outer space was hugely popular, aided by a barrage of commercials containing one of the most insidious earworms in history (“Transformers! More than meets the eeeeeeye …”). Hasbro created a full line of toys, but demand quickly exceeded supply during the holiday season. After honing their retail-fu skills during the Cabbage Patch Kid craze, parents fought like Autobots and Decepticons for the remaining toys. Hasbro watched its shares rise from $23 to $60 in 1984. Hasbro shipped an estimated $80 million worth of Transformers for the year.

    Price in 1984: $2.99 to $27.99

    eBay price in 2010: $1.99 to $1,495

    Bet you didn’t know … Among the voice-over artists in the early cartoons and movies: Scatman Crothers and Marlon Brando.

    Where are they now? The toys never went away, but didn’t reach the A-list again until Michael Bay’s 2007 live action “Transformers” movie scored big.

  • Teddy Ruxpin (1985)

    Teddy Ruxpin bear, w. built-in microchip
    James Keyser  /  Getty

    The hype: If you couldn’t make a single friend in elementary school, your parents could buy you a Teddy Ruxpin. The brainchild on a Disney Imagineer named Ken Forsse, the talking bear and his friends were home versions of the animatronic puppets kids saw at theme parks and pizza parlors. Worlds of Wonder sold 800,000 Teddy Ruxpin dolls in 1985 — which were fetching double or triple their already steep price because of shortages around the holidays.

    Price in 1985: $68

    eBay price in 2010: 99 cents to $71

    Bet you didn’t know … Many of the first generation Teddy Ruxpins arrived with a glitch, speaking in a disturbing gibberish. Teddy Ruxpin was recalled the following year, with more than 12,000 returned as defective.

    Where are they now? Worlds of Wonder went bankrupt in 1988. Hong Kong-based Backpack Toys manufactures a relatively small number of Teddy Ruxpin accessories through 2010.

  • Tickle Me Elmo (1996)

    Tyco's Tickle Me Elmo doll, popular toy
    James Keyser  /  Getty

    The hype: Elmo had long since ousted Grover as the Alpha Male of “Sesame Street,” and was a steady merchandise boon for Tyco Toys and Children’s Television Workshop. But no one predicted the runaway success of Tickle Me Elmo, which is a close second to the Cabbage Patch Kids in the history of holiday hype. The injuries were plentiful (one store worker broke a rib during a stampede) and reports of 600 percent markups or more weren’t unusual. Faith in humanity was occasionally restored, too, with many reports of Tickle Me Elmos getting auctioned off for good causes.

    Price in 1996: $27.99

    eBay price in 2010: $9.60

    Bet you didn’t know … One later generation Tickle Me Elmo doll worked like a Willy Wonka golden ticket, programmed to tell the owner that they won a $200,000 prize.

    Where are they now? Mattel bought out Tyco and has kept the brand alive, most notably with the 2006 release Tickle Me Elmo Extreme, which moves so convincingly that it appeared to be possessed.

  • Beanie Babies (1996)

    Little Five Year Old Adam Kalina
    Bill Greenblatt  /  Getty Images

    The hype: If you were the parent of a small child in 1996, and had a hard time saying no to your kid, chances are good you spent hours going from store to store looking for Bongo the Monkey or Tusk the Walrus. Developed earlier in the 1990s, Beanie Babies were doing fine as a business — but became a huge phenomenon after salesman H. Ty Warner got the brilliant idea to “retire” some of his already successful babies, making them valuable on the collectible market. With consumers combing stores looking for the rare ones (and often settling for more common new Beanie Babies) during the holidays, the company ended 1996 with $250 million in sales.

    Price in 1964: $4.95

    eBay price in 2010: $4.99 (the rarest Beanie Babies go for as high as $5,000)

    Bet you didn’t know … Among the Beanie Baby tribute dolls were a Jerry Garcia tie-dyed bear, and a Diana tribute bear that was released after the Princess of Wales’ 1997 death.

    Where are they now? Beanie Babies have come and gone over the years, occasionally showing up in fast food kid meals or to promote a brand such as SpongeBob Squarepants.

  • Furby (1998)

    Furby
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images

    The hype: The Furby was like having a cross between a Teddy Ruxpin and a foreign exchange student in your home. The owl/hamster hybrid, which came in different shapes and colors, came out of the box speaking an unidentifiable language (“wee tee kah wah tee” = “sing me a song”) and slowly learned English. They were an early holiday phenomenon, hyped constantly on television newscasts. Tiger Electronics could only produce about 2 million — far fewer Furbys than children wanted — but came back to sell 14 million in 1999.

    Price in 1998: $35

    eBay price in 2010: $11.51

    Bet you didn’t know … The second-most searched Furby site on Google is www.phobe.com/furby, which shows the result of a customer’s autopsy he conducted on his “dead” toy.

    Where are they now? The original Furby was discontinued in 2000. An upgraded Furby that could carry on a conversation was produced from 2005-2007.

  • Nintendo Wii (2006)

    Wii
    Scott Barbour  /  Getty Images

    The hype: The Nintendo Wii had a cool new motion-sensing wand, but its graphics and family-friendly games looked quaint compared to the high-powered Xbox 360 (already one year old) and PlayStation 3. The U.S. media initially hyped the PS3, but by Christmas the Wii was a much harder system to find. Wii-hungry gamers waited in long lines at retail stores that were receiving only a few units each, and shortages continued throughout the following year. Nintendo sold about 3 million units worldwide by Christmas 2006, and another 17 million in 2007.

    Price in 2006: $249

    eBay price in 2010: $120

    Bet you didn’t know … Shortly after the console was released, Wii players started complaining about a variation of tennis elbow. Wii-itis has been written about both in the New England Journal of Medicine and WebMD.

    Where are they now? The Wii claims to hold a worldwide lead in sales over the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but will face a new challenge this year as both systems release their own motion-sensing game controller updates.

  • Zhu Zhu Pets (2009)

    Zhu Zhu Pet toy
    Mark Lennihan  /  AP

    The hype: The Zhu Zhu pets didn’t reach Cabbage Patch Kid or Tickle Me Elmo levels of consumer mayhem. Unlike many holiday toy makers of the past, Cepia LLC of China was able to ship millions of Zhu Zhu pets a few days before Christmas, no doubt averting several riots at Wal-Marts  throughout the country. Cepia estimated $70 million in sales in 2009, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Hopefully toy makers are starting to see a pattern here: while it’s impossible to predict the most-hyped toy of the season, it’s always good to invent something that will look cute when consumer reporters and anchors play with it on the morning TV news.

    Price in 2009: $10

    eBay price in 2010: $12

    Bet you didn’t know … A consumer group suggested that one of the pets, Mr. Squiggles, had a dangerously high level of the metal antimony. Cepia rejected the claim and sales of the Zhu Zhu Pets did not flag.

    Where are they now? Probably stuck under your couch. (Zhu Zhu pets and related accessories are still being manufactured.)

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