Anji Grant checks Tami Zunk's computer screen to select a photo of her daughters at Woodville Mall.
Santa Claus knows if you've been bad or good, but who keeps tabs on Santa?
That would be IPI Inc.
The Toledo firm, which specializes mainly in providing custom plaques at golf outings and other events, employs an army of Santa Clauses and his helpers every holiday season to run Santa photo operations at 180 malls nationwide.
It is one of four main companies that vie for the bulk of Santa photo business at shopping malls throughout the country.
"It's a great tradition for us. The nice thing is, you know, that Santa always tries to get the best helpers so we're always looking for someone that can represent him from a looks and appearance standpoint," said Steve Hardin, IPI president.
In its search for authentic-looking Santas, the company set up a recruiting booth this summer in Branson, Mo., where a national convention of real-bearded Santas was held. The firm participated in seminars on Santa appearance and behavior.
These are good times to be in the mall Santa business, Mr. Hardin said.
Digital equipment permits high-quality photos at reasonable prices - about $13 on average for a basic photo of a child with Santa.
"However, the key for us is whether we're having more visits every year which equals more photo opportunities," Mr. Hardin said. "And we do. Traffic flow in the malls is still real, real strong."
Six years ago, IPI had contracts in just 14 malls, but has worked aggressively with some of the nation's largest mall operators, including General Growth Properties Inc., and Simon Properties Inc.
Locally, the Toledo firm has the contract at Woodville Mall; among the 20 other malls in Ohio where it operates is the popular Easton Town Center in Columbus.
Some parents try to cut costs by taking their own photos, but IPI and other companies don't permit it. Parents at IPI sites can shoot two of their own photos if they purchase the minimum photo package.
"Sometimes we get a bad rap in the press about that, but the visit with Santa is always free," Mr. Hardin said.
For the mall Santa, the work can be grueling, 10 to 12 hours a day.
Tom Pellitieri, a real bearded Santa who goes by the business name Toledo Santa LLC, said visits by children to Santa are on the upswing.
"I am finding, from talking to the children, that they want to believe and, quite honestly, they want to know there's someone out there that loves them and cares about them," he explained. "That's one of things about Santa. It's an unconditional love."
The war in Iraq, where some parents are serving in the military, prompts requests to Santa about bringing a father or mother home for Christmas. Said Mr. Pellitieri: "I tell them, 'Well, he has a job to do.'•"
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