Santa lands at Wal-Mart

Christmas themes, caroling abound after just-say-holiday rule denounced

December 08, 2007|By Bloomberg News

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, is getting back into the Christmas spirit.

Two years ago, the discount chain substituted the word holiday for Christmas references and encouraged greeters to do the same, in line with other retailers' removal of Christmas from advertising and stores.

Now, after criticism from religious groups, the Bentonville, Ark.-based merchant for the first time has brought Santas into its 3,407 stores. And, after an experiment at a few locations last year, the retailer has set up a Christmas Shop in 1,500 of its outlets.

"This is still a nation where the majority of the people consider themselves Christian," said Patricia Edwards, a Seattle-based portfolio manager at Wentworth, Hauser & Violich, with $13.4 billion in assets, including Wal-Mart shares.

Last month, Lowe's Cos., the Mooresville, N.C., home-improvement chain, apologized for referring to "Family Trees" in a catalog.

Yesterday, Wal-Mart broadcast its "first ever" Christmas carol concert by the Salvation Army brass band and its own choir -- complete with downloadable song sheets -- along with remarks from the Rev. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, to air in stores and on the Internet.

The retailer has also been offering photos free of charge with a Santa Claus in stores on weekends through tomorrow. For families who can't afford pictures with department-store and shopping-mall Santas, the photos are "absolutely a huge traffic draw," Edwards said.

Wal-Mart's shoppers were "loud and clear" that they wanted more references to Christmas, spokeswoman Christi Gallagher said. "It's really just a direct response to what our customers have told us" in comments to store managers and on the company's toll-free phone number, she said.

Wal-Mart resumed using the word Christmas in stores and advertising in 2006, a year after the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights started a boycott in response to the retailer's approach to Christmas. The boycott ended after one day after an apology from the company, according to the New York group's Web site.

"The message that we're giving to spread Christmas in the stores is one that really resonates with all our shoppers, regardless of religious affiliation," Gallagher, the spokeswoman, said. She said she wasn't aware of any negative reaction to the changes.

The American Family Association was among conservative groups that last year threatened a boycott of Wal-Mart stores after Thanksgiving and after the retailer joined the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

The AFA, based in Tupelo, Miss., canceled the boycott after Wal-Mart said it would not make contributions to "highly controversial" groups or issues. The AFA has also assailed retailers, including Wal-Mart, for omitting the mention of Christmas in stores and marketing.

This year, the AFA turned its attention to Lowe's, the second-largest home improvement chain.

Lowe's received 119,000 e-mail messages last month after the AFA posted a message to members urging them to protest the retailer's use of the phrase "Family Trees" in a catalog, said Karen Cobb, a company spokeswoman.

Lowe's has always used Christmas in its marketing and wasn't trying to depart from that, Cobb said. Lowe's issued an apology.

"It was not our intention to try and be politically correct or to try to take the significance of Christ out of Christmas," she said.

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