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Retailers putting a twist on Christmas

This holiday season a dozen major retailers are banking on the choppy, pulsating sound of remixed Christmas classics to help lure young shoppers and keep them spending.
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"Happy Holidays," sung by Bing Crosby. "The Christmas Song," crooned by Nat King Cole. And, of course, 46Bliss's rendition of "Silent Night."

Not familiar with the electronic pop repertoire of 46Bliss? You will be if you shop at Old Navy this holiday season. Pottery Barn will introduce shoppers to Robbie Hardkiss's "Jingle Bells." For Red Baron's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," you can hit a Sunglass Hut at the mall.

Remixes — a pastiche of traditional recordings and urban-style electronic music that has been around for years — may be more common to the dance floor than the sales floor. But this holiday season a dozen major retailers are banking on the choppy, pulsating sound of remixed Christmas classics to help lure young shoppers and keep them spending.

The sound, a new twist in the never-ending quest to remake holiday music, is one more tool stores will employ during the make-or-break holiday shopping season that runs from now through New Year's Day. After limping through the holidays from 2000 to 2002 and experiencing a modest 4 percent sales increase last year, retailers could use a big Christmas.

Selling a mood
The goal of the music is not merely to be hip, but to actively shape consumer mood. Remixes, with their fast-paced, throbbing beats, evoke the atmosphere of a private club — one where retailers hope shoppers see their lifestyle on display. "It's like being invited to the right party," said Leigh Oshirak, director of brands for Pottery Barn.

But retailers know it's more than that. Researchers have found that the right music can prompt bigger purchases, slow people's movement through a store, even help customers forget how long they've been shopping.

"Retailers want to put time on hold," said Craig Childress, director of research at Envirosell, a retail consulting firm, and they have found that "music can do that better than any other stimulus."

Marketing professors Richard Yalch of the University of Washington and Eric Spangenberg of Washington State University found something even more interesting: Consumers shop longer when listening to music that's unfamiliar. They speculated that shoppers may lose track of time while trying to identify the tune.

Noel with a kick
On the remixed holiday CDs now hitting retailers' shelves, the song titles are familiar, but the sound is not. On Old Navy's "Jazzy Jolly" holiday CD, 46Bliss remixes Mahalia Jackson's rendition of Silent Night. Jackson's voice is still there, but the original tune is all but unrecognizable, replaced with a thumping drum base line and computer-generated pulses.

On Pottery Barn's "Christmas Chill" album, Michael Kessler remixes Mel Torme's recording of "The Christmas Song." Torme sings, accompanied by his own echo, which reverberates throughout the piece, and a hip-hop-inspired rhythm inserted in the background.

The remixes allow retailers to reinforce their identity as trendsetters without alienating older consumers, who like the original recordings even if they are pasted into radically different songs, said Lori Campion, a music programmer at Muzak Corp.

Retailers have experimented with edgy non-holiday CDs Pottery Barn, for example, pushed its Margarita Mix, a Latin music CD, for summer parties — but when it comes to the holidays, until now they have stuck with a well-worn combination of original Christmas classics, performed by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin, and updated pop recordings of the same songs.

Pottery Barn, Old Navy and Sunglass Hut are doing more than just playing the remixed holiday music: They're putting their brand names on CDs and selling the sound, the latest variation on the now-widespread practice of selling stores' music selections.

At least one retailer is giving the holiday remix away. Starting in mid-November, shoppers who buy Levi Strauss Signature clothes at the Midwestern discounter ShopKo Stores will receive a remix holiday album.

Several more chains, such as Adidas, Aeropostale and Cingular Wireless stores, will work remixed holiday songs into their in-store music programs, according to the companies that supply the songs.

Subliminal sales?
Inside Sunglass Hut, sales clerks say that the right blend of fast-paced music around the holidays not only boosts spirits, but also sales, said Rachael Anthony, manager of the chain's Fair Oaks store. "It reminds people it's time to buy gifts," she said.

Mary Perriello of the District has already completed her holiday shopping. But when the Christmas music begins playing in the mall, she has found herself browsing for products she doesn't need — "Christmas tree ornaments, for sure," she said. "It makes you want to shop."

The idea for remixing classic holiday songs for retailers originated with Rock River Communications Inc., the country's biggest supplier of branded music to chain stores, including Pottery Barn, Gap and J. Crew. After almost a decade of producing holiday tunes for retailers, Rock River decided just about everything had been tried — pop musicians performing Christmas classics, orchestras performing classics, jazz bands performing classics.

"A lot of the remakes feel really disposable," said Jeff Daniel, Rock River's president. "Christina Aguilera did a version of 'The Christmas Song.' Does that make you want to sit around the fire with your family? I don't think so."

So Rock River tried remixes, licensing original holiday classics from record companies and then asking disc jockeys and producers such as Dan the Automator to rejigger them for this season. The company imposed one requirement: They had to use portions of the original recording.

These, then, are the songs that appear on CDs for retailers such as Pottery Barn and Old Navy. Programmers at Muzak and DMX Music Inc., which arrange music programs for hundreds of retailers, say they also plan to use the remixes this year.

"There is a real shortage of new holiday music," said Muzak's Campion. "This is a breath of fresh air."

But will remixing succeed for holidays that thrive on tradition?

So far, remixing has proven popular when applied to plenty of other kinds of music. The practice has been around since at least the early 1970s, when studios began taking songs produced for the radio and extending them for use inside clubs.

Age of remixing
Today, music groups — from rock to rap — routinely borrow bits and pieces of older recording for use in songs updated for their contemporary audience. There is even a Grammy category for best remix. Remixers "pay tribute to the original material" while "giving it a new market," said Anthony Kelley, a Duke University music professor.

Dan Nakamura, the Grammy-nominated hip-hop producer who works under the name Dan the Automator, said traditional holiday music "doesn't suit the attitude of what young people are listening to right now — Latin jazz, club friendly, dance music."

Nakamura remixed a Dean Martin rendition of "Jingle Bells" for retailers this year. In the song, Nakamura dices up the lyrics so that word "jingle" often floats through an unfamiliar sea of thumping drums, electronic pulses and the occasional trumpet note.

"I don't ever expect to hear that on the radio or to sit around the fireplace listening to it," he said. "But if I walk into Urban Outfitters and people are bopping around to it, that's great."

Plenty of retailers are sticking with traditional holiday fare this year. May Department Stores Co., which owns Hecht's, Lord & Taylor and Foley's, will offer a "conservative sound" consisting of artists such as singer Norah Jones and composer George Winston, said Muzak's Campion, who has helped arrange in-store programming for the St. Louis-based chain.

Then there is Wal-Mart. The nation's largest retailer, whose holiday tunes ring across more than 3,000 stores, will play Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Macy Gray and Alvin and the Chipmunks, said spokeswoman Karen Burke. But don't expect to hear Dan the Automator or any other remixers in the toy aisle of the local Wal-Mart.

"We have no plans to play those selections," Burke said.