TAMPA — One of Santa's helpers warns the grown ups to stand back. Sawyer Baker is about to be fitted for his virtual flight academy suit.
The four-year-old from Safety Harbor holds his arms straight out, just like he's told, and sees a moving, mirror image of himself on a life-sized screen wearing the green uniform required of all those who are helping Santa with his sleigh.
For the next 15 minutes, Sawyer winds through the sprawling flight school in the middle of International Plaza & Bay Street. He powered Santa's Sleigh with the loudest "Merry Christmas" he could muster, was briefed on the weather conditions, and played in fake snow as it fell from the top of a two-story-tall, overflowing sleigh.
Stunned by the rise of online shopping and diminished foot traffic, retailers and shopping centers are pulling out all the stops this season to draw in shoppers. For many, a key strategy is offering unique experiences, ranging from the immersive flight academy for kids, to in-store fitness, cooking or swing dancing classes for adults, "sip and shop" events, community fundraisers, elaborate tree lightings and much more.
Shoppers are expected to do more than half of their holiday shopping online this year for the first time, taking advantage of quick home delivery or in-store pickup options over the stress and hassle of long lines for those doorbuster deals on Thanksgiving. Free and expedited shipping has made online shopping so convenient that many consumers say that typically going into a store is too cumbersome. If they're leaving their house to shop, they need good reason.
"The internet itself made Black Friday less relevant," said Patrick Berman, managing director of the commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. "I can stay home on Thanksgiving. Now it's less important because at 2 a.m. you can buy books and stuff online… it used to be you had to go to the stores."
Take Joshua Pillock, 36, of Tampa, who hasn't set foot inside a shopping mall in two years, buys just about everything he needs online, and limits his holiday shopping to gift certificates for Publix or a local spa. They don't go on sale, he said, so he'll likely pick up the gift cards when it's convenient around the first or second week of December.
Still, the vast majority of an estimated 164 million Americans who are holiday shopping this year plan to spend part of their money the old-fashioned way at stores.
"It's nice after spending a couple of days eating turkey and watching football to get out of the house," said Katherine Cullen, director of consumer and retail insights for the National Retail Federation.
This year the average consumer will have a holiday season spending budget of $967.13, up 3.4 percent over 2016, the National Retail Federation reports. In total, that brings the total holiday spending in the U.S. to about $678 billion between November and December.
Despite high-profile retailers like Toys R Us and RadioShack filing for bankruptcy this year, retailers and industry experts point to some bright spots. Consumers seem eager to spend and retailers have the opportunity to connect with customers in a more personal way than ever before and are adjusting to the market.
"It's now a whole new mindset of clicks and bricks working closer together," said Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of the Retail Group for Douglas Elliman Real Estate in New York City. For the physical stores, "it's all about creating an event, a place to go."
That's why earlier this month Walmart began hosting in-store holiday parties at Supercenters around the county. Attendees get sticker sheets for kids and the latest catalogs, plus product demonstrations geared toward entertainment and popular gift options.
Some area shopping centers, like Centro Ybor and Tampa Premium Outlets in Wesley Chapel are hosting tree-lighting events, featuring special guests like Santa, face painters, balloon artists or live musicians, plus special promotions outside of the Black Friday weekend.
South Tampa's Hyde Park Village isn't concerned with Black Friday —which by the numbers is still forecast to be the most popular shopping day of the year.
"That's more for Target, Walmart and Best Buy — your big store brands that aren't here in the village," explained spokeswoman Gabby Soriano.
Instead, their marketing efforts focus on Small Business Saturday, which Soriano said is more in line with their local branded shops and community-focused stores. The village is also organizing a ginger bread competition, where the different shops make their best ginger bread structures and, in exchange for a charity donation, shoppers can vote for their favorites.
Kendra Scott, a national brand that sells jewelry, home décor and beauty products is hosting Yellow Friday at its Hyde Park Village Location. Its biggest sales event of the year will span the weekend. Store employees will do what they can to pamper customers, like passing out complementary glasses of champagne or other treats to those waiting in line.
"The holidays can be so hectic," said retail area manager Katie Pluto, "We're trying to change that Black Friday experience to be really positive and different."
Even holiday shopping veteran Felicia Cuebas, of Oldsmar is planning to forego the doorbuster deals.
Black Friday was a certainty every year for over a decade until last year when she drew the line. Thanksgiving is a day to spend with her family, she said, and waiting until Friday means missing out on the hottest sales, like for the Xbox her 22-year-old son asked for, or the camera on her 15-year-old daughter's wish list.
With bags from at least five different stores hanging off her arms during a recent trip to International Plaza, Cuebas pulled out her consolidated shopping list, marked down in a pocket-sized metallic notebook. Then she pulled out the "master list," in a teal folder with printout templates that breaks down, by person, each item on her list, including its expected price and a checkbox for when it's purchased. "I cross it out when it's wrapped," she said.
There's still plenty left to buy… but so far, she said with a grin, "I'm ahead of schedule."
Holiday store opening hours
8 a.m.: Kmart
1 p.m.: JCPenney
4 p.m.: GameStop
5 p.m.: Best Buy, Macy's, Toys "R" Us, Kohl's
6 p.m.: Old Navy, Target, Dick's Sporting Goods, Tampa Premium Outlets, Sears, The Shops at Wiregrass
6 a.m. Lowes, Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond
7 a.m. Sam's Club, BJ's Wholesale, Harbor Freight Tools, Petsmart, Big Lots, Staples
9 a.m. Costco Wholesale