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Santa Claus visits are going digital, from 'elfies' to augmented reality

Santa Claus is taking the reins, going digital to get parents back to the mall for that annual photo.
E-commerce is expected to increase by 14 percent this holiday season, but Santa is still a big attraction that can drive traffic to malls.
E-commerce is expected to increase by 14 percent this holiday season, but Santa is still a big attraction that can drive traffic to malls. HGTV

Shopping has moved online and out of the mall — and now Santa is fighting back, with digital experiences to entice shoppers to visit his grotto, from an augmented reality sleigh ride to Instagrammable "elfies."

E-commerce is expected to increase by 14 percent this holiday season, but Santa is still a big attraction that can drive traffic to malls. While some kids may opt to video call St. Nick, around one in four mall shoppers will have a child’s picture taken with Santa this year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade association.

“These are the physical experiences that really make a holiday shopping season something special,” said Kurt Ivey, head of marketing at Macerich, one of America's largest mall operators. “We make sure we’re delivering that at each shopping center.”

Macerich is offering "Santa HQ 5.0" at 15 of its malls, from Oregon to New York. The holiday village features a "Magic Mirror" where visitors use virtual reality to try out favorite elf outfits, and a station where kids can see Santa’s observatory through augmented reality. The passes include photo packages ranging from $40 to $50.

“This is the type of thing online shopping can’t deliver,” Ivey told NBC News.

Also new this year is the "Santa Elevator Express," available at Bridgewater Commons mall in New Jersey, run by Brookfield Properties. Visitors can ride an elevator embedded in an elaborate, 40-foot-tall Christmas tree to Santa's workshop, where they can get their photos taken.

Burlington Mall in Massachusetts, managed by Simon, opened its first "Santa’s Winter Wonderlights" this year. Visitors can walk an illuminated pathway, stopping for a "Naughty and Nice" selfie on their way to Santa. The passes also include photos ranging from $40 to $48.

Malls are also partnering with local businesses to entice shoppers away from their screens. Hill Country Galleria in Bee Cave, Texas and The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove, Minnesota, which are managed by CBRE commercial real estate, host a holiday market where local artisans set up shops and sell their products. Shoppers can browse local crafts and then take a photo with Santa — and can even include their pet.

Instagram is driving a lot of changes when it comes to Santa photos at the mall. Simon, which runs more than 200 shopping centers across the country, built Instagrammable sets in its malls where shoppers can stop and take a selfie. Some shopping centers offer an option to get Santa pictures directly via text so that holiday visitors can post the photo on Facebook or Instagram before they even walk out of the mall.

“The strategy is to invest in our properties and continue to evolve our offering to meet the needs of our consumers and their evolving interests and tastes,” said Mikael Thygesen, Simon chief marketing officer.

Digital-only packages to capture a moment with Santa is now a mainstay of the business, said Ruth Rosenquist, a spokesperson for Cherry Hill Programs, which has managed on-site Santa photography since 1961.

“What’s changing is the technology and sophistication of the actual experience," she told NBC News. "We still have experiences where it’s more traditional, so it’s a little bit of both."

Santa visits also increase sales at mall vendors. Over Thanksgiving weekend 78 percent of shoppers also dined at restaurants in malls and shopping centers, according to ICSC.

Ashley Famiglietti recently visited Burlington Mall’s Santa’s Winter Wonderlights with her wife and their two twin two-year olds. The family visited on a Wednesday night when there wasn’t much of a line, but Famiglietti told NBC News that the path to Santa kept her kids entertained. After they visited Santa, they went out to eat dinner at the Cheesecake Factory.

"The whole point was just to visit Santa, but we had dinner and made a night of it,” she said. “[Santa] was great with the kids and it just gets you into that Christmas-y feel."