Malls may be dying, but the retail Santa business is still thriving – Business Insider
Ed Taylor never set out to be Santa Claus, let alone one of the most in-demand Santas in the nation. Much like Tim Allen’s character in the holiday classic “The Santa Clause,” it was an unexpected calling.
Taylor first found himself draped in a Santa suit in Ashland, Oregon, in 2003 after a friend had unexpectedly fallen ill and needed a last-minute replacement to take on the role of Kris Kringle at a local fundraiser. Though he was initially hesitant, Taylor’s wife encouraged him to go, lending a hand in coiffing his beard.
Despite his skepticism, it didn’t take long for him to embrace his newfound vocation.
“Within minutes, I thought, ‘Wow, this is special. This is really fun,'” he told Business Insider. “I was driving back home with my wife when I said, ‘I’m just going to volunteer to be Santa Claus anywhere anybody will have me.'”
For Taylor — who at the time also worked a day job in business development and professional speaking — a zest for spreading Christmas cheer would lead him everywhere from Oregon women’s shelters and high schools to Make A Wish Foundation events at local hospitals.
By 2011, his affinity for moonlighting as Santa took him to the Century City Mall in Los Angeles, where he began to capitalize on his hobby and eventually transform into a bona fide Hollywood star.
A Santa star is born
While getting paid is certainly a perk, many Santas — most of whom are at or near retirement age — aren’t in it for the money, Santa Rick of the Northern Lights Santa Academy told Vox last year. Due to the seasonal nature of the job, few make more than $25,000 a year, and most make closer to between $5,000 and $15,000.
For Taylor, the mall ultimately helped accelerate his profile as a big-league Santa, though he began to experience a mild malaise as the mall landscape in Los Angeles shifted and more upscale retail locations began to crop up, creating more competition and less clientele.
“I enjoyed working in the mall, but I wanted to do different kinds of work,” Taylor said. “There were a lot of times where it was slow and not a lot of foot traffic and that was kind of boring to me. The money was okay and everything like that, but it just wasn’t as much fun as I would’ve liked.”
While at Century City, he befriended several aspiring young actors and actresses who worked alongside him as elves and Santa’s helpers. This enthusiastic group encouraged Taylor to take advantage of his unique niche and gregarious nature by getting an agent to start booking television gigs.
Before long, Taylor was starring in everything from a Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton Christmas music video to an episode of MTV’s “Ridiculousness.” Over the years, he’s worked with several Hollywood notables, including Jimmy Kimmel, Ellen DeGeneres, and James Corden.
Santa Ed Taylor in a music video with Gwen Stefani.
“I discovered that I was kind of good at [acting],” he said. “I think probably my experience as a professional speaker and everything was very, very helpful in that regard.”
In addition to his television appearances, Taylor also runs The Santa Claus Conservatory, where he holds workshops for aspiring Santas seeking out both retail and performance work. The Conservatory currently has 3,000 members, 15% of whom pay a small membership fee to access exclusive content and special events.
Ultimately, Taylor said the biggest perk of the Conservatory is fostering a community of Santas around the nation, who regularly chat online and grab lunch to swap tips and catch up on life.
“I mean, I’m not getting rich with it, but I love trying to help the community,” Taylor said.
From the mall to the living room
Among the other prominent members of the Santa community is Jonathan Rich, a performance Santa who split shifts alongside Taylor at the Century City Mall. Rich got his start doing private events and working at assisted-living centers, where he developed a true passion for the work.
“For me, it’s therapy,” Rich told Business Insider. “I get disappointed in the world and people and being Santa provides me an opportunity to renew my faith in humanity.”
Over the years, Rich said, he grew frustrated with the mall scene, particularly as he received mounting pressure to sell more photos and merchandise and spend less time talking with the children. The advent of social media, he said, also started to change the way shoppers interacted with mall Santas as more young parents clamored to get the perfect shot for Instagram.
Suddenly, at the higher-end malls in Los Angeles, visits with Santa were scheduled from mobile phones and parents received messages alerting them that their appointment time was approaching. As a result, some of the magic was lost for Rich, as the focus shifted toward expediency and getting as many families through the line as possible.
“I was treated not well. I was told to go faster and sell more and I found that very unsatisfying,” he said. “So I said ‘I’m never going to work in a mall again,’ and I went back to doing company parties and assisted-living facilities.”
Rich found his passion to moonlight as Santa was renewed through his work with everyone from children with disabilities to hospice patients. Rich, who is partially deaf, regularly attends schools for hearing-impaired children, who he said are delighted to see a Santa who also has hearing aids. He has also picked up various languages through his work as a Santa, including American Sign Language.
“It’s an honor and privilege to be Santa,” he said.
Retail Santas go beyond the modern mall
However, not all Santas are hoping to be groomed to be screen actors or aspiring to strictly do private events. Some, like Jim Langley, are pursuing alternative retail venues that are providing new opportunities to bust out the beard.
Langley, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, has worked in various capacities as a Santa for 49 years, including his first role at the Quintard Mall in Oxford, Alabama, and overseas as a member of the US military. Today he works at a Cabela’s store, one of an increasing number of Santas setting up shop in retail spaces that transcend the traditional mall.
Though Langley said he loves the work, he concedes it can be quite draining, both mentally and physically.
“It’s very tiring,” he told Business Insider on a recent day off. “People don’t realize, it’s like lifting a 10-pound weight repetitively — let’s say a hundred times a night — and sometimes that 10-pound weight is kicking and screaming.”
Still, he said his experience working as Santa has opened his eyes to a wide breadth of humanity, and he regularly receives visits from a diverse group of children across race, religion, and socioeconomic status.
“The whole thing with the store Santa isn’t just sitting there,” he said. “It’s one of the hardest jobs you’ll ever have because you’ve got to know child psychology. You get asked some of the darndest questions like, ‘Can I have a little brother for Christmas?’ or ‘Can you bring my dad home for Christmas? He’s in Iraq or Afghanistan, or he got picked up by ICE and got deported.'”
While it can be difficult to respond to such heartbreaking requests, he said that at the end of the day, simply listening to the children and allowing them to feel heard has been a fulfilling experience.
“It’s a wonderful job. You get to talk to these children and it’s all about the love,” he said. “These children are our future generation. They’re our future hope for the world, and we really need to talk to them.”