Holiday helpers and “theater”: Retailers go big this season

A battle is raging for consumers’ wallets this holiday season, and it’s going to involve glamour, red curtains, selfie booths and price wars.

Brick-and-mortar retailers like Walmart (WMT) and Target (TGT) are doubling down on their preparations for the season, rushing to snap up temporary workers to make shoppers’ sugarplum dreams come true. With consumers coming off their first year of household income gains since 2007, retailers are counting on them to boost their holiday spending by anywhere from about 4 percent to10 percent this year. That could lift the season’s sales to their highest level since the recession.

At the same time, consumers are increasingly shopping online, taking advantage of free shipping offers and price discounts from Amazon (AMZN) and the like. That’s raising the stakes for big retailers to create unusual experiences inside their stores as a way to lure consumers away from their computers and smartphones. 

Walmart stores will have “holiday helpers,” or workers parked near the checkout lines who can fetch forgotten items, and selfie booths, while Target plans “elements of theater” in its stores, as well extra staff and a special area for holiday trimmings.

“What we see the leading retailers doing is creating emotional experiences in their stores,” said Steven Barr, PwC’s U.S. retail and consumer leader, earlier this month. “I like to say that a website can’t give you goosebumps.”

Barr said stores have realized that shoppers respond to experiences, such as in-store beauty bars where friends can visit together while shopping, or product demonstrations.

That’s clearly a lesson that Walmart and Target have absorbed and will trot out this holiday season.

“In all of our stores from Nov. 5 through Dec. 17 (excluding Nov. 26), we’ll offer demos of the latest top toys so parents can try before they buy and see what’s most exciting to their kids,” said Target spokeswoman Erin Conroy. “Guests will see elements of theater -- like spotlights and red stage curtains -- and the word ‘spectacular’ woven throughout the store.”

Target is pinning some of its holiday hopes on a store-within-a-store concept called Wondershop. which will feature roughly 2,000 new products with a focus on “holiday trim.” (Think wrapping paper and ribbon.)

It has also invested in remodeling 82 stores where it sees the most demand for order pickup, a service that lets consumers pick up an item in the store after ordering it online.

Of course, there’s also the battle over prices. Starting in mid-November, Target will offer $10 off a $50 purchase in departments that will rotate each week, such as grocery or home.

Walmart, which has been rebuilding its image under CEO Doug McMillan, says it’s also offering competitive deals. Addressing a recent complaint of poor service, the company said it’s deploying an “army of holiday helpers” who will assist shoppers while they’re in the checkout line. It’s also hiring Santas to make 23,000 appearances during the holiday shopping season.