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Tannerman
December 4th, 2003, 12:22 PM
Besides all the lights found on Michigan Ave., the place to be during Christmas in Chicago (http://www.cityofchicago.org) is State Street (http://www.greaterstatestreet.com/). As Frank Sinatra sang, it's "that great street!" The main reason is the unique holiday window displays.

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Amy and I have checked out all the windows this year and are here to provide you with our ranked opinion of which is the best. Our reviews covered long-time window decorator Marshall Field's (http://www.fields.com), along with Carson Pirie Scott (http://www.carsons.com), and newcomer Sears (http://www.sears.com).


3rd Place: Carson Pirie Scott

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Carson's (http://www.carsons.com) has never had great windows on State Street. They only have 5 windows to work with, and usually there isn't a theme. Basically, people visit the windows after they check out the real reason they came downtown... to see Marshall Field's windows.

This year's windows had Carson's featuring their partnership with toy store FAO Schwarz (http://www.fao.com/). FAO used to have a huge flagship store on Michigan Ave., but that closed two years ago because of struggling sales. FAO Schwarz was then purchased by the parent of The Right Start (http://www.rightstart.com/), which in turn renamed themselves FAO, then purchased Zany Brainy (http://www.zanybrainy.com/), and now the whole company is filing for bankruptcy protection (http://www.irconnect.com/faoo/pages/news.html?d=49076). Sounds like a good company to partner with, Carson's! (Just goes to show that if you overprice your toys, you are stupid.)

Needless to say, the displays featured the famous FAO toy soldiers spending their day outside of work. Stuff like having pillow fights or making cookies. There was no storyline... just some windows with random themes. And even then, it looked like some of the motorized elements where not functioning. Overall, Carson Pirie Scott's windows stunk.


2nd Place: Marshall Field's

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Surprised that Field's (http://www.fields.com) came in second? We were too. This year, their theme was based on the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0375815260/), spread over 11 windows. This is the story that the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B00005QJEF/) was based. As expected, Field's had very high production values, with lots of fully dimensional animated characters (not just flat cardboard cutouts). The visual style was minimalist... very bright and lighthearted. If you've seen the film, you'd understand the windows.

However, the shining star of State Street had a tarnished image. Frankly, over the past few years, the window displays at Field's have been not up to the same quality level I remember from my youth. Many critics point to 1990 as the beginning of the change. This was the year that Marshall Field's was acquired by the Dayton Hudson Corporation (now named Target Corporation (http://www.targetcorp.com/), after their largest brand). After this buyout, there were no longer custom window displays designed just for State Street. The new parent company wanted many stores around the country to share window displays, so broad themes were created and displays were made so they could be mass produced for more than one location. Frankly, I would agree. There is nothing "Chicago" shown in the Field's windows anymore. Just adapted stories done in a very lifeless way (and probably to save a bunch of money).

On top of the creative changes made in the displays, Amy and I had to question some of the logic on the execution. For instance, when you view the 11 windows at Field's, you have to move around the building from left to right. However, this year, they decided to put small text captions in the lower right corner of the windows. Logic would say that they should have been in the lower left side or above the display to make the walk-around easier to follow, but that didn't seem to be the case. On top of that, Field's chose to use a very small font, which made it extremely hard to read. Finally, they made the ill-fated decision to apply the captions as stickers to the outside of the windows. When Amy and I were visiting before Thanksgiving, many of these captions had already been defaced by having letters removed. The whole thing just didn't make much sense to us. Field's has lost their edge.


1st Place: Sears

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Window champion, thy name is Sears.

Two years ago, Sears (http://www.sears.com) returned to State Street with a new multi-level store aimed at attracting a different demographic. It's different from your typical Sears store. "Sears on State" tends to be more hip and diverse, fashionable and edgy, but also practical.

This year, Sears got involved in the holiday window display wars with a new 15-window presentation that wraps around the building from State St. to Madison Avenue (which is officially Chicago's "center," from which all points east, west, north and south are measured) Having read about the new window display, Amy and I ventured over to Sears to see what it was all about. In the paper, Sears was quoted as saying "[we have] no desire to compete with the storied windows of Marshall Field's and Carson Pirie Scott. We are doing our own thing." No pressure, I guess. Frankly, I wasn't expecting much. I mean, it's Sears. I can't tell you the last time I actually set foot in one of their stores.

However, we were pleasantly surprised with what we found. The original story told in the windows, titled The Making of a New North Pole, is a home run. It features a flashback to last Christmas, where Santa and the elves were too busy to ensure the toy-making machine worked correctly, so toys came out a mess. Kids all over the world got the wrong toy, parts of one toy stuck to the parts of others, etc. They were overwhelmed with mail and Mrs. Claus couldn't keep up with making cookies. Thus, a plan is put in place to completely remodel the North Pole, upgrade the process, and make everything great for this Christmas.

Do you see where I'm going with this? Obviously, Sears is known for Craftsman (http://www.craftsman.com) tools and whatnot, so it was a perfect fit. Plus, they were able to work in Kenmore (http://www.kenmore.com) products for Mrs. Claus' kitchen, which was funny. It was apparent the display didn't have the financial backing similar to Marshall Field's, as the animated characters were flat, two-dimensional creations. However, the sets were bright, whimsical, and in many cases, downright funny. Plus, you could spend a lot of time staring at one window looking for hidden gags, which might be later referenced in another window. It was extremely classy.

Unlike Field's, Sears put their window captions in large print directly above the window display (which was intentionally placed very low to the ground so the kids could see it easily). The captions were written as a story that rhymed, and in a State Street first, featured text in both English and Spanish.

Another element that was pretty unique was an illusion of falling snowflakes on the borders of each window display created through the low-tech use of a scrolling piece of paper. In fact, Sears seemed to use a lot of simple approaches in telling their story, but it was extremely effective. On top of all this, the story told was extremely Chicago-focused, with Santa specifically flying to Sears on State to get the supplies he needed for his rehab. As an older "kid," I chucked at the way Sears was able to seamlessly integrate a fun storyline with product placement. It wasn't obtrusive, but it was humorous in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. Sears proved that you don't need a big budget or lots of effects to be successful. Just produce a good story and people will flock. I wish more businesses would learn this lesson.

From what I've read in the paper, putting these windows together was sort of a rushed process. Two months ago, one of Sears design managers came up with the idea, and with other staff members, locked themselves up to create a storyline. They then hooked up with a freelance illustrator, who concepted the look. Finally, they contracted with a local design firm to build the display pieces. The rest is history.

When we got home, I actually called Sears national customer service number to offer my compliments on the display. The lady I spoke to at their call center in Texas was rather surprised that I called. I think I made her week. The following day, I got a call from Sears corporate headquarters (which is located in the Chicago suburbs... no, they aren't in the Sears Tower anymore). This time I talked to some other guy for a brief time about my reactions. I figured that if this was an experiment, I needed to provide some buzz to hopefully see the tradition continue. Sears' windows have been a nice addition to the State Street experience.

So there you have it, our thoughts on the State Street Showdown. If you haven't done so already, try to get downtown this Christmas season to see these window displays and the other sights and sounds of life in the big city. It's my kind of town!

(Check out who wins the 2004 State Street Showdown (http://steveandamysly.tannerworld.com/features/statestreetholidaywindows/)! :))