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When I connect to Santa Claus over Zoom, he is busy on another phone call with US president-elect Joe Biden. He clutches a red plastic telephone to his bearded cheek as he sits between a brightly lit Christmas tree and a table bearing a gold-painted typewriter.

He hangs up and excuses himself for being late. “Leila! Your new president needed my help, but now I’m all yours. Do you have your hand san-TA-tiser and your mask? Ho-ho-ho! What do you want this year?”

No, this was not a fever dream. This is Christmas shopping in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The event planners at UK department store Selfridges came up with “Dial-a-Santa” virtual appointments as a way for kids to have a version of the traditional experience while still respecting social distancing.

Selfridges is hosting ‘Dial-a-Santa’ virtual appointments this season © Leila Abboud

It is one of many tactics being tried by high-end retailers and luxury brands in Europe as they try to save the crucial Christmas shopping season. Others include offering appointments with sales associates to help clients shop using smartphone video or chat, and creating pop-up events to tempt people back, such as Selfridges’ outdoor Christmas market featuring a gigantic helter skelter ride.

In the UK, France, Belgium, Ireland and northern Italy, all “non-essential” retail outlets were closed in November, although governments have recently allowed them to reopen with mask-wearing required. Stores have remained open elsewhere in Europe, but governments have still urged citizens to stay home as much as possible.

It is not exactly a recipe for the joyful consumerism that retailers and brands usually seek to stoke at this time of year. But try they must: the shopping period between the Black Friday promotions on November 27 and December 25 generates 20 to 50 per cent of annual sales for non-food retailers, according to EuroCommerce, the EU retail trade association.

In luxury, the Christmas holiday season accounts for roughly one-third of sales depending on the brand, according to Bain & Company management consultant Claudia D’Arpizio, with December sales usually double that of a normal month and November often one-third more.

Holiday decorations on the Dior store in Paris © Reuters

The pandemic has also scrambled the types of things that consumers want to buy. Out is stumping up for “experiences” such as trips and five-star meals. More in favour are so-called “timeless luxury” purchases such as classic Chanel or Dior jackets, and things for the home.

With big-spending Chinese tourists who drive most of luxury’s growth still unable to travel to Europe, stores are also having to cater more to locals. At the Paris department store Le Bon Marché, that meant a dizzying array of scented candles and intricate plants in terrariums.

“Psychologically, the luxury shopper wants to buy but still has fewer occasions to dress up than normal,” says D’Arpizio. “It’s really hard to predict how the season will turn out.”

On the various reopening days, some people were very excited about being able to shop in person again. There were long queues outside the Louis Vuitton store on the Champs-Elysées, the Hermès and Moncler stands at Harrods in London, and luxury mall Rinascente in Milan.

Meredith, a 72-year-old London resident, had come to buy gifts on Oxford Street for her grandson and was dressed impeccably for the outing in a Gucci coat and beige trousers. “I’ve missed shopping, and I am too old for online,” she said. She left laden with three bags of toys.

In Paris, I struggled to muster any enthusiasm for shopping for gifts online in November — too little time and even less patience. Instead I turned to the few open shops and ended up buying a haul of gourmet foodstuffs, including paté from the Basque country, chocolate truffles and sardines from Brittany.

Drawing people back to the stores may be complicated by restrictions on crowds. In Paris, Le Bon Marché can allow roughly 3,750 people in at once, one-third of normal attendance. Harrods can have 4,500 people in its 1 million-square-foot flagship in London, far from the 12,000-18,000 it would have per day in a normal Christmas season. Some outlets are extending hours to get more people in the doors safely.

Selfridges plans to offer discounts from Boxing Day © Simon Dawson

Michael Ward, the managing director of Harrods, says complying with such restrictions was the “right thing to do” for staff and customers. But the 15-year Harrods veteran worried that it would struggle to sell all the merchandise that buyers had chosen in January when they put in Christmas orders. “Just think of all the Christmas pudding!” he jokes. “Four weeks of the key selling season have been lost so we will have a lot of Christmas left over.”

To cope, Harrods is starting to discount far earlier than usual, applying up to 50 per cent reductions to some items, effectively moving up promotions that usually occur on Boxing Day to early December. “We’ve got to make sure we get rid of the stock in case there is another lockdown,” says Ward.

Selfridges does not plan to discount until Boxing Day, says buying and merchandising director Sebastian Manes. It instead hopes to draw people in with temporary installations, such as a Fendi-branded bar serving a Fendi Cosmo for £14. During a recent visit, there was a woman guitarist singing next to a Prada-themed Christmas tree made of red and pink ribbon.

Shoppers stroll past a Louis Vuitton store in London the day after England’s second lockdown ended on December 2 © Xinhua News Agency/eyevine

Many department stores and luxury brands have also turbocharged their online retailing efforts this year.

That is the case for Louis Vuitton. Chief executive Michael Burke says the spring lockdowns showed the importance of giving autonomy to its 12,000 client advisers, who are tasked with developing ongoing relationships with big-spending customers. By giving them access to more information such as live inventory, Louis Vuitton turned “every one into a store manager”, says Burke, able to sell whenever and from wherever they are, regardless of whether the brand’s 470 worldwide stores are open.

At Louis Vuitton’s Bond Street store, client advisers recently streamed a floral arrangement class to keep VIPs engaged. And for American clients in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the brand will send mobile store to their home with items tailored to please.

Louis Vuitton’s mobile store is travelling to US customers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut © Louis Vuitton

Will it be enough to match a normal Christmas for Louis Vuitton? “I think we’ll do even better than last year,” says Burke, noting the brand’s online retail operation was sending out “about 30,000 packages a day this year, compared to 13,000 a day last year.”

In Paris, some people wanted to keep their Christmas traditions even if the pandemic required some adaptation. Charlotte Musilier and her 12-year old daughter Barbara had come to admire the elaborate window displays at Galeries Lafayette as they did every year. “So what if we have to wear masks and keep our distance?” said the mother as her daughter smiled at a set of dancing puppets. “We are just happy to be here.”

Additional reporting by Domitille Alain in Paris

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