‘It Really Is A Business’: Why Taking Your Own Santa Visit Pictures Makes You A Cheap Jerk

Image courtesy of Naomi

Last week, we ran a post with advice for families bringing kids to visit Santa, written by a former mall Santa who got the job despite being skinny, thirtyish, and Jewish. He explained how to keep your children from melting down on Santa’s lap. One former elf, who we’ll call “Holly,” took offense at one of that particular Santa’s tips for saving money, and wrote in to explain how things worked at the mall where she served as “elf,” or manager of the Santa set. The main thing she wants our readers to know: if you don’t buy any photos and insist on only taking your own, you’re a Grinchy jerk who is figuratively yanking money out of every employee’s pockets.

Holly writes:

The photography companies contract with the mall, and we get the space allotted to and designed for us. Generally, all the staff, including Santa, work for the photography company. Both companies that I worked for hired only natural bearded Santas, so the skinny Jewish Santa in your story would not cut it.

On to photography. The entire point of Santa being there in the mall is for the photography company to make money. They are paying Santa and the staff. The malls get a cut of that money. Many malls, including both I worked in, had a policy that prohibited photography on mall property. In one mall it was seasonal, in one it was all year. Taking that picture instead of buying one of our packages is literally taking bread out of the mouth of the manager, and sometimes Santa, of that site. Managers get a bonus, usually something equal to half their pay for the entire season, if they meet sales goals. With the companies I worked for, Santa got a bonus too. Managers at these sites are usually salaried, but it works out to about $10.00 per hour or less, especially if there is extensive administrative work like scheduling. Assistant managers usually make $8.50 – $9.00 per hour.

The rest of the staff, excluding Santa? Minimum wage. We would do everything possible to block parents from taking their own pictures, up to and including calling mall security to have them removed. Why? We wanted to be able to afford to eat and to not lose our jobs. Telling people to take their own pictures in many cases violates both mall policy and the policy of the photography company, who leases the ‘set’ where Santa is and I have seen it go as far as getting someone permanently banned from the mall we were in because they got belligerent, I called security, and then the person got even uglier with security. Please advise your readers that it is NOT okay to take their own picture when their child is sitting with Santa. If they really feel the need to capture the memory, buy the least expensive package.

Many companies have a policy that as long as the family is buying something, they’ll allow a quick extra couple of shots by the parent. One company I worked with allowed the family to videotape the entire visit with Santa as long as they were buying at least one picture package. But please remember that the people who are working are very poorly paid and very much need the bonus that they could earn from your business. As much as we would like to think a visit with Santa is a fun cultural event, it really is a business.

Thanks, Holly! It’s really helpful to hear about this from the business side, even if Santa has already come and gone this year.

When you stop to think about it, many money-saving, deal-hunting tactics that fans of this blog employ are also taking money from the pockets of low-paid employees. When you turn down a store credit card, decline a particular upsell, or use your local retailers as an Amazon showroom, you’re affecting sales figures or important metrics that in turn affect employees’ pay and the number of hours they’ll be scheduled. That’s not really the same as using a resource (Santa) without purchasing the item for sale (photos) but keep it in mind when planning your Santa visit next year.

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