Browsing the holiday displays at Bronner’s

It’s a valuable field trip for school communicators

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 8.04.25 PMAs a kid growing up in mid-Michigan, I thought Bronner was one of the reindeer that pulled Santa’s sleigh. I suppose I was confusing the name with “Donder” from the Clement C. Moore poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

But I wasn’t entirely off base.

Bronner’s, Frankenmuth, Mich.

In Michigan, the Midwest and beyond, it is Bronner’s that delivers the trappings of Christmas joy to thousands of homes, cities, and businesses.

Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland (founder Wally Bronner, a devout Lutheran, stipulated that Christ be emphasized in the name) bills itself as the world’s largest Christmas store. Walk in 361 days a year and it’s going to look and sound like Christmas.

I can’t imagine another establishment challenging Bronner’s claim to yuletide magnificence.  No place else gives shoppers a selection of eight Santa thrones. Bronner’s $900-per-day electric bill is proof that the seven-acre sales chalet glows Christmas inside out.

I’ve spotted billboards for Bronner’s in travels in most states east of the Mississippi. The advertising must work. Bronner’s is situated in Frankenmuth (“Michigan’s Little Bavaria” ), which has fewer than 5,000 residents, yet the store attracts more than 2 million visitors annually.

Learning from a display giant

Kevin Maurer with gigantic bauble with Wally Bronner’s image painted on it.

Since it’s Christmastime, and Bronner’s is Christmas kitsch at it’s finest, I made an appointment to speak two years ago with Kevin Maurer, who designs Bronner’s interior commercial displays. Kevin, a father of six, is also the Frankenmuth school board’s treasurer. You’ll see his decorative Christmas and Easter displays in shopping malls, casinos, hotels and municipal properties all over the U.S. and in Canada.

I asked Kevin to share some tips that school communicators could use to create more attractive displays.

Kevin, who’s been with Bronner’s 35 years, began with the disclaimer that he studied business, not art, in college. He confessed that he might feel under-prepared for the job if Wally Bronner himself had not given him years of on-the-job training.

Bronner died in 2008 at age 81.

“Mr. Bronner added Christmas decorations to his existing sign painting business,” Kevin said. “It was obvious to those of us who worked with him that he was a natural. He had a knack for good design.”

Here are the essentials:

  • Your lobby must give clear visual signals, possibly even written instructions, about how guests are to proceed once they’re inside your front door. Ask yourself, “Would I know where to go next if I just arrived from out of town?”
  • Don’t crowd displays into the woodwork. Bring them out from the wall and let them “breathe.”
  • Stagger the elements. Nobody looks at “birds on a wire” for very long.
  • Group elements in odd numbers, not even numbers. It’ll look more balanced.
  • Vary the size of elements in a display. Ideally, one element should be dominant, signaling what’s most important to view first.
  • It’s impossible to over-estimate the appeal of color. Be lavish. After all, it’s the holidays!

A penny-pincher’s guide to creating great looking displays

Gingerbread decorations

While many of the commercial displays Kevin designs cost upward of $150,000, he takes pride in the fact that Bronner’s refurbishes 17-foot Santas, 15-foot snowmen and other large decorations to help customers make them last decades.

Kevin also helps customers afford Christmas makeovers. He links potential buyers of gently used decorations with owners who want to switch up the holiday décor to keep their holiday appearance fresh. Case in point: The very same decorations he originally sold to Lansing Mall were subsequently purchased by Birchwood Mall in Port Huron, and then by a shopping mall in Odessa, Texas.

While Bronner’s has more than 50,000 types of yuletide trappings it can sell you, Kevin said it doesn’t have to cost a mint to create a festive effect. Using shiny paper to wrap  framed wall art and empty boxes like presents is an inexpensive way to be festive, he said. Adding bows or changing the color of bows is another inexpensive way to redecorate, he said.

But Kevin’s favorite low-cost way of celebrating the season – or any special event – is giving personalized ornaments. “Penning” is  the occupation of 36 people (most of them part-time) who work on Bronner’s cavernous retail floor. In addition, 25 penners are employed to personalize orders that come in over the internet.

Karen Lynch personalizes baubles.

I had a pleasant chant with penner Karen Lynch, who was writing names on boxes of train ornaments purchased by a Connecticut organization. Karen told me how she always looks forward to trimming her tree at home with a personalized bauble gifted to she and her groom at their wedding in 1975 — decades before she was hired at Bronner’s.

“It’s nice to make something that you know will be treasured, even though it doesn’t cost a lot,” Karen said.

What’s your strategy for creating a display that gets noticed?