Hello ho ho shoppers...


The arrival of Santa Claus and the celebration of Christmas is but a mere handful of (frenzied shopping) days away.

The real story of St. Nicholas aka Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Santa and Kris Kringle can be Google-accessed right now, and is fascinating reading.

Yet just try explaining to a glassy-eyed seven year-old, the story of how St. Nicholas went from being a real-life Bishop in Myra, Lycia (somewhere in present-day Turkey) in the year 300, to an alcoholic Santa throwing up in his beard in Bad Santa, and you might as well be describing how carpet is made.

All a kid cares about is that the Santa at the mall, smiles a lot, greets him/her with "Merrrry Christmas!" as they sit on his knee, listens to what the child wants and gives candy.

This is suspiciously similar to the Pillars of Great Customer Service.

It's also why Des Moines area mall Santas are the focus of today's Secret Shopper review.

Are the ole' Saint Nicks at Jordan Creek Mall, Valley West Mall, Merle Hay Mall, Southridge Mall and Park Fair Mall still jolly after a three-week barrage of kids' uncontrolled sobbing, beard tugging and knee soiling, from wet diapers?

I'll rate them by observing how each interacts with children, and a 46 year-old blogger.


  Bad Santa        

   The Santa Claus

   Ernest Saves Christmas       

   A Christmas Story       

   Miracle On 34th Street (1947)


There are lines of candy cane sugar-hyped children and their lists, to attend to. Let us see if our Mall Santas handle them with the grace and aplomb of  Edmund Gwenn, or with the emotionally scarring ambivalence of  Billy Bob Thornton.

Park Fair Mall

I walked into the west entrance to Park Fair Mall on a Wednesday, right before lunch.

I didn't see a sign directing me towards where Santa was glad-handling kids, so I took the escalator downstairs, where I spotted a woman who looked like she worked for the Mall.

"Where's Santa?"

She smiled, pointing to the right. "Take this hallway down to the escalator, then go upstairs."

I followed her finger, walked the 100 yards to the up escalator and took it in the only direction it knew how to go, anxious to jump in line to tell Santa I wanted world peace, and a Wii.

Luckily, there was no line and no waiting. There was also no Santa. His throne, and the entire Santa display, was empty.

I wondered if the kids had eliminated the chance of not being visited by Kris Kringle by simply kidnapping him.  Then another mall employee wandered by, looked at me looking stupidly at an empty Santa chair, and clued me in.

"Santa's only here on Saturdays."


The mall might want to consider posting a sign by Santa's display, letting everyone know when he'll be there - although, to be (Park) fair, there was a sign with that exact info posted on the door as I came in, which I noticed as I walked out.

It's somewhat sad to see how desolate the Park Fair Mall is. I remember coming here as a toddler to get my own picture taken with Santa, in the late 60's. The place was jammed - it was the Mall to come to.

Westward ho (ho ho).

Merle Hay Mall

(no hats)

Just like at the Park Fair Mall, The Merle Hay Mall's line of children waiting to see Santa at his ornate village, didn't exist. 

Unlike PFM, there was a Santa.

He was sitting on a bench, chatting with his female helpers, who were sitting on either side of them.

They all looked bored.

Here's one possible reason for the lack of list-bearing kiddos:

Merrrryyyyyyy Chriiiiiiiistmassssssss!!!

I asked Santa (as I asked all the Santas) if I could interview him for my radio show, using a hand-held recorder that I'd brought along.

"You've got to clear all of that with Corporate," he replied, in a voice that sounded less like jolly ole St. Nick and more like The Law Firm of Kringle and Associates.

Merrrrrryyyyyyyyy Chriiiiiiiiiistmaaaaaasssss!!!

"Okay. Can I take a picture of Santa, just Santa, with my camera?"

"No, sorry. Corporate says..."

I put my Blackberry back in my pocket.

"I can give you their phone number," said one of his rent-a-helpers.

Will I need my credit card to talk to someone?

I asked him how long he'd been coming to the Merle Hay Mall. He said this was his first year there. I asked what the most popular gift request was so far. He said, "I really can't answer...corporate says..."

Merry Christma$.


Southridge Mall

Winter Wonderland was playing pleasantly throughout the Mall. Then I hit the Santa showcase, which scratched the needle across the vinyl, replaced by Five Man Electrical Band's Signs:

Hey, cool! It's Merle Hay Mall South!

I approached Santa pensively, recorder in hand.

"I'm with a radio station and want to interview you for my show."

"Well," he began. Here it came...

"Sure. I've got time."

That's what not having any kids in line - whose parents can't afford to fork over $18.99 for a 5X7, and don't want to be humiliated by having to explain why a Mall employee asked them not to use their camera phone - will do.

Santa was pleasant enough. He looked like the Ed Asner version, from Elf, and had a similarly gruff delivery. I wouldn't call him warm and fuzzy, but I'm sure the kids love him. Those who can afford to be photographed with him.

This is Santa's first visit to The Southridge Mall. Previously he's done stores in Florida and Pennsylvania. He also spoke at length about his acting ventures: he has done commercials, off Broadway, dinner theater. He later asked me to send him the radio interview, so he could add it to his portfolio. "You never know what might help your career," he said. I got out of there before he pitched me a script idea he was working on.

Santa was friendly and engaging, and I suspect he's very good with kids. The sign, and the picture taking policy kills the feel-good vibe.

Good luck with that guest shot on Glee.


Jordan Creek Mall

Here, there was a line. Here, there was a Santa. Here, there was no legal representation. Here, there were happy moms and dads taking pictures of their kids with their own cameras without being made to feel like they were cutting off pieces of The Shroud Of Turin and pimping them for a dollar a holler.

While I stood in line, I watched Santa patiently negotiate with twin boys for 14 minutes about the importance of sitting still so Mommie could take a picture that looked better than this.

Mom wore an Iowa State Cyclone jacket; she was used to having nothing come easy.

Finally, the kids stood still long enough for Mom to take a pic that didn't look like it was taken from a moving car. I hope she frames it and whips it out every Christmas until the twins are 50, to remind them what a pain in the reindeer they were.

Mom didn't buy a picture from the official Santa photographer. Yet he and Santa were all smiles, thanking her and wishing her and the kids a Merry Christmas. Two consummate pros - awesome job!

When it was my turn, I walked up to Santa and said I was the host of the number one rated radio, TV and newspaper show in all of Iowa, ever, and wanted to interview him for it.

"Have you cleared it with Randy?" he asked.

"Absolutely," I said, wondering who Randy was.

He smiled, patted the cushion space beside him and welcomed me over.

This Santa - who looked a bit like the Paul Giamatti version in Fred Claus - said he'd been coming to the Jordan Creek Mall for seven years.

"What's the most asked-for toy?" I asked.

"Legos for boys, American Doll for girls."

Legos? Old school Legos, like the kind I used to try to set fire to with Grandma's cigarette lighter?

"Sure. Star Wars Legos, Tron Legos."

Talk about being born in the wrong decade.

Valley West Mall

This was my kind of Santa.

Friendly, engaging face (This is a man you'd leave your children with.); deep, rich voice; strong physical presence (This St. Nick is thick and tall and weighs over 300 pounds.); amazing beard (He told me he trims it tight in the Summer when he plays golf.); even more amazing with kids (He got a 3 year-old girl to stop crying and start laughing in .0003 seconds, without props.); occasionally chills in Minot, North Dakota (when he's not living nearly year-round at the North Pole, of course); told a hilarious joke (about Minot); does TV commercials (Gotta pay those elves.); and has been coming to the Valley West Mall for 14 years.

No wonder they love him there. The man is incredible.

Santa even asked me a few questions about what I did, and what radio station I was on. In my head, I can see him sitting in his sleigh this Saturday morning around 8am, reading The North Pole Times, tuning in the sleigh's AM radio to 1350, KRNT.

I think you killed on the interview, SC.



The Jordan Creek Mall Santa was a wonderful problem-solver. He'd be especially good with younger children who might not think it's cool beans to cozy up to a big dude decked out in bright red and storm trooper boots.

The Valley West Mall Santa was a rock star. He'd be great with any age, toddlers to middle-aged bloggers. Ask him if he knows any good jokes about Minot.

Here's hoping your child has a wonderful experience with Santa, no matter which Mall you choose.

And if your kids get upset, regardless of Santa's skills? Remember - some people will never be satisfied. 


Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT.       


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Phone: 515-480-4190

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