Byline: Carol Emert

WASHINGTON — It’s thumbs down on TV home shopping and having Hillary Rodham Clinton depicted in Christmas displays. And it’s thumbs up on extending store hours around Christmas and keeping Santa in the holiday decor, according to shoppers participating in focus groups at Tysons Corner Center.
Tysons, one of the most productive malls in the country achieving $436 per square foot annually, gets many successful marketing ideas for the price of a few sandwiches and some gift certificates.
Customized gift lists, improved signage, recyclable mall maps, even tips on holiday decor for the mall have all sprung from shopper focus groups organized by the McLean, Va.-based center several times a year. While many malls utilize focus groups, Tysons’ approach is different, according to retail consultant Peter Glen. He noted that malls generally hire outside consultants to run focus groups, while Tysons talks directly to consumers, and unlike many malls, heeds the advice of shoppers. Tysons is “an activist” in focus group research, Glen said.
Isaac Lagnado, publisher of the Tactical Retail Monitor, agreed that discussions with shoppers can be helpful, but advocated surveys polling large audiences as well as consultants to conduct focus groups. “If you are really going to make strategic decisions on the basis of these encounter groups you are potentially exposing yourself to major mistakes,,” he said. The focus groups, said Debbie Withers, Tysons’ marketing director, “keep our fingers on the pulse of what the customer is thinking and feeling. And it’s a real quick way to identify trends.” In addition, Tysons does hire outside consultants to conduct focus groups once every two or three years and conducts surveys about as frequently, supplementing focus groups, Withers noted.
The groups involve 12 Tysons shoppers seated around a conference table, discussing what they like and dislike about the mall. For the complex, which has 1.9 million square feet of retail space and is anchored by Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor, Woodward & Lothrop and Hecht’s, it’s a nominal expense: less than $500 per session, with $25 gift certificates given to each participant the primary cost. Participants in a group are shoppers who have submitted mall comment cards and checked a box indicating their willingness to join in. The last session included mostly professionals who were generally enthusiastic about the mall’s ambience, services and array of stores and merchandise. However, they suggested some enhancements, and some services they thought should be avoided or dropped.
For example, they gave a resounding thumbs-down to the idea of putting Tysons on TV for home shopping. They said they enjoy shopping the mall and prefer to feel the goods and see them in person.
While aware of the group’s attitude toward home shopping, Withers maintained, “We want to keep electronic shopping on the [focus group] agenda because interactive is a hot thing and we want to stay in tune with what people are doing. We’re not looking at it for the immediate future, but it’s something we consider.”
Seasonal shopping bags also got a thumbs down, with the focus group suggesting that money not be spent to change the look of the bags each season to match the mall’s decor. One member of the group suggested it’s the kind of “special touch” that turns off value-conscious shoppers. Withers later said the mall would switch to year-round bags with the mall logo. Like the seasonal bags, they will be offered free at the concierge desk or for 50 cents from vending machines. The money is donated to charity.
Among other suggestions arising from the focus group:
Extending Christmas hours, from 7 a.m. to later in the evenings, at least a couple of days per week. However, Withers said that would probably not be cost-efficient. Last Christmas season, the mall opened at its regular time, 10 a.m., except for the week before Christmas, when it opened at 9 a.m., and closed at 10 p.m., instead of the normal 9:30 p.m. l Renaming the concierge center “customer service.” Concierge implies a tip will be expected, said several shoppers.
Using larger signs to display shopping hours and hanging store signs that can be read from afar.
Providing porters to carry packages to cars.
Each of last year’s eight focus groups were queried about a controversial holiday display in the middle of mall that satirized politics, and gained enormous publicity. It featured the “Also Run Ski Run,” a downhill contest between life-sized figures of Ross Perot and Michael Dukakis, and the “Pork Barrel Emporium,” featuring 40 spoof products such as Minority Whip sandwich spread and Brutal men’s cologne, with Sam Donaldson’s picture on the label.
Focus groups made several suggestions altering the final design. For example, they nixed the idea of putting Hillary Rodham Clinton’s head on top of a model Mt. Rushmore, saying it was disrespectful. Santa’s head appeared instead.
Despite some local opposition, who felt politicizing Christmas demeaned the holiday, the display drew many people who otherwise would not have come, spurring sales, according to management. The focus group suggested less controversial ways for attracting crowds, including an art museum featuring works from local schools and recreating traditional downtown department store windows with animated figures.
They also urged Withers and Kem Blue, Tysons’ general manager, who also attended the meeting, to wait until Thanksgiving before putting up Christmas decorations and to take them down around New Year’s.
Withers said the Tysons decorations will go up one week before Thanksgiving, instead of two weeks before, a decision made independent of focus groups. On the group’s advice, however, Tysons will leave the decorations up until Jan. 1; instead of removing them immediately after Christmas, Withers said.
Conveying service information to shoppers is one of the mall’s biggest challenges, and a primary topic in focus groups. Members of the group also complained that the mall map had too much information and too many confusing symbols.
“We are going to delete some of the symbols,” Withers said after the focus group session. “There is just a whole lot of information on it. But course, we can’t respond to every request.”

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