The Rush to Shopping Season : Nordstrom Decks the Halls With Hectic Holiday Make-Over

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They toiled away all through the night, trying to create the spirit of Christmas. They put up trees, hung wreaths and tinseled display cases. But they were not Santa's helpers. They were employees at Nordstrom South Coast Plaza.

It is a tradition at Nordstrom stores all over the country. When the stores close at 8 p.m. on the evening before Thanksgiving, everything appears as it would on your average shopping day. As soon as the last customer is out the door, about 100 full-time and temporary workers hit the floor toting strings of brightly colored lights, laying down holiday carpet and trimming the Christmas trees for the hordes of shoppers who return for the day-after-Thanksgiving action.

The idea--a marketing oddity in these times--is to celebrate one holiday at a time and not to overshadow the importance of celebrating Thanksgiving. That includes keeping Christmas themes out of its advertising campaigns until after Thanksgiving. Most other department stores, and the malls themselves, have their Christmas decorating done by the time Thanksgiving rolls around.

But for Nordstrom decorators, preserving the Thanksgiving spirit for shoppers means sacrificing their own.

Few left for home before 3 a.m. Thursday. Nordstrom's in-house designers, who work through the night until about 9 o'clock Thanksgiving morning, are kept alert with large mugs of steaming coffee.

"If there is a bad side to this, it's that you are exhausted on Thanksgiving," said display designer Jeffrey Hamill. He explained that most other department stores make the change incrementally, decorating one department at a time over a period of a few weeks.

The Nordstrom decorators do it all in one burst, laying out dozens of Christmas trees, nearly 1,000 poinsettia plants, 633 strings of lights, 386 snowflakes, 50 ivy plants, 45 bird cages, 30 aspen trees. They change all the window displays. Even the piano on the second floor gets tuned to be in perfect shape for the masses of shoppers expected in the weeks to come.

So, while all the workers expected to sleep through much of Thanksgiving Day, few complained.

"You ask yourself if it is really worth it, and it is," said Denise Combes, a store auditor with Nordstrom. "You come into the store and it is normal, and when you leave it looks and smells just like Christmas. It's just great."

Like Combes, a number of the decorators' helpers were Nordstrom employees who enjoyed the chance to show their creative sides for a night.

Joyce Spillane only got to watch last year's decorating because she was on duty as a security guard.

"It looked like so much fun that this year I wanted to play," said Spillane, who spent most of the night creating snowflake patterns on a glass wall.

"It is fun to walk in and look around and say, 'I made that,' " Combes said.

For Cori Wiegandt, assistant manager at Nordstrom South Coast Plaza, the decoration party is an annual reunion of old friends and colleagues. "Everyone that I used to work with when I did stock is here, and that is really fun," she said. "If I don't do this, I have withdrawals."

Nordstrom's tradition of waiting to put up its Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving, while unusual, happens to be a savvy concept.

According to Tony Cherbak, retail analyst with Deloitte & Touche, there is not much point in decorating early because few people consider starting their Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving anyway. Less than 20% of all Americans will have their holiday shopping done before the Thanksgiving weekend, he said.

Besides, the transformation of the store is a great customer draw. When Nordstrom reopens today at 8 a.m., store officials are expecting customers to be lining up to get in, some hoping to be among the first to get a peek at the freshly decorated store.

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