Wal-Mart is bringing Santas back to its stores

Two years ago, Wal-Mart Stores substituted the word “holiday” for Christmas references and encouraged store greeters to do the same, in line with other retailers’ removal of “Christmas” from advertising and stores.

Now, after criticism from religious groups, Wal-Mart is getting back in the Christmas spirit. For the first time, the retailer is bringing Santas into its 3,407 stores. And, following an experiment at a few locations last year, the retailer has set up a “Christmas Shop” in each of its 1,500 outlets with garden centers.

“This is still a nation where the majority of the people consider themselves Christian,” said Patricia Edwards, a portfolio manager in Seattle at Wentworth, Hauser & Violich.

Last month, Lowe’s, a home improvement chain based in Mooresville, North Carolina, apologized for referring to “Family Trees” instead of Christmas trees in a catalog.

Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, has produced a Christmas concert by the Salvation Army brass band and its own choir that will air in stores along with remarks from Pastor Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life.”

Retailers are vying to draw shoppers burdened by defaults on mortgages and higher food and fuel costs. Customer visits this year have declined at Wal-Mart compared with 2006.

On Friday, shares of Wal-Mart fell 25 cents to close at $49.02 on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares have gained 6.1 percent this year, compared with an 11 percent decline for the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock retailing index.

Wal-Mart’s shoppers were “loud and clear” that they wanted more references to Christmas, a company spokeswoman, Christi Gallagher, said. “It’s really just a direct response to what our customers have told us” in comments to store managers and on the company’s toll-free phone number, she said.

Wal-Mart resumed using the word “Christmas” in stores and advertising in 2006, a year after the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights started a boycott in response to the retailer’s approach to the holiday. The boycott ended after one day following an apology from the company, according to the group’s Web site.

Bringing live Santas into its stores this year can generate good will that might increase sales, said Burt Flickinger, managing director at Strategic Resource Group in New York.

Wal-Mart on Thursday said that sales at stores open at least 12 months rose 1.4 percent this year through Nov. 30.

“Hopefully Santa can help the situation, because not much else seems to be working for the boys down in Bentonville,” said Flickinger, who added that he owned shares of the company.

Comparable-store sales are considered a key gauge of retail performance because they track only results from established locations.

Gallagher, the Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said she was not aware of any negative reaction to the changes. “The message that we’re giving to spread Christmas in the stores is one that really resonates with all our shoppers, regardless of religious affiliation,” she said.

The American Family Association was among conservative groups that last year threatened a boycott of Wal-Mart following Thanksgiving and after the retailer joined the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

The association, based in Tupelo, Mississippi, canceled the boycott after Wal-Mart said it would not make contributions to “highly controversial” groups or issues. The group has also assailed retailers, including Wal-Mart, for omitting the mention of Christmas in stores and marketing.

This year the group turned its attention to Lowe’s, the second-largest home improvement chain after Home Depot.

Lowe’s received 119,000 e-mail messages last month after the association posted a message to members urging them to protest the retailer’s use of the phrase “Family Trees” in a catalog, said Karen Cobb, a Lowe’s spokeswoman.

Lowe’s has always used Christmas in its marketing and was not trying to depart from that policy, Cobb said. Lowe’s issued an apology. “It was not our intention to try and be politically correct or to try to take the significance of Christ out of Christmas,” she said.

Leave a Reply