Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
plIronically, Rich Williamson has only dressed up like Santa Claus a few times in his life. “I wore a Santa suit for a neighborhood party once and so many people were like ‘Our kids are asleep, could you go into the room and make a noise?’” he says. “I would bump things to make them open their eyes and say, ‘Go back to sleep and get up in the morning and you’ll see a surprise.’ The parents were ecstatic about it.”
Williamson has made a career out of bringing Santa-related joy to countless people, but it hasn’t been by putting on the familiar red and white outfit himself. By running Planet Santa, the largest online retailer of Santa-related costumes and apparel, Williamson spreads suit-based cheer nationwide. This isn’t a website for those who want something cute to wear to the holiday party or to terrorize sober citizens while tumbling around at SantaCon; this is for serious Santas. The Kris Kringle costumes run from $100 to about $500, and the site’s target customer is the guy sitting in the courtyard of the mall giving his flu shot a workout as thousands of tots fly across his lap asking for the latest Lego creation.
The offices for Planet Santa are in the Old City District of Philadelphia, which looks much more like an upscale shopping village than it does the North Pole. From about Halloween until Christmas each year, Planet Santa takes up the back storeroom section of Pierre’s Costumes, a custom costume maker and theatrical costume rental shop also owned by Williamson. Past a trio of women putting the final touches on costumes for a regional production of Elf: The Musical and through a corridor overstuffed with every sort of military uniform, hoop skirt, and mascot head imaginable is the glorified cargo bay that belongs to Planet Santa.
It’s not much, just boxes and boxes full of black boots, curly white wigs, and furry red and white ensembles to keep alive the collective delusion that a large man magically teleports down the chimney every December 24th. When I visit just before Thanksgiving, there are several stacks of FedEx boxes six feet high headed out to customers all across the country gearing up for their Christmas events. And that is just the first of the day’s four scheduled pickups.
Jennifer Valosen, the general manager of Planet Santa who has been with the company for more than a decade, says that it’s already sold out of the signature “Classic Look Velvet Santa Suit with Real Metal Buttons,” a burgundy take on the “Coca-Cola suit,” a style that was made popular by the soft drink’s holiday advertising early last century. While neither she nor Williamson have actually run the numbers, they estimate they burn through about 8,000 to 10,000 Santa suits a year. That’s in addition to thousands of patented boots, the best seller in the industry. Planet Santa will also unload thousands of pairs of white gloves and 500 gallons of Ben Nye Hair and Beard Whitener.
Planet Santa offers about a dozen different suits, most of them furnished by Verona, Pennsylvania-based Santa suit wholesaler Halco. CEO Terri Greenberg says that her family and Williamson go way back and that Planet Santa is “very easy to work with.” Though it’s not her biggest client (she wouldn’t divulge that information), the brand is one of them.
However it’s Planet Santa’s signature suit, which it has designed and manufactured, that sets it apart. Santa Gordon Bailey — who has been a professional “real beard” Santa for 37 years, runs the Santa and the Business of Being Santa school in Southern California, and literally wrote the book of the same name on how to be a professional Father Christmas — recommends all of his students buy one of Planet Santa’s suits. “They offer the minimum quality of Santa suit that the malls, other stores, Macy’s, and just about every large photograph operation would require,” he says.
That suit is made out of velvet, not the plush material that is found in older and cheaper Santa suits. It also has more (faux) fur down the front, on the collar, and around the sleeves. The benefit, however, of Planet Santa’s suit is that Williamson has taken decades of feedback from Santas to give it some distinct advantages. There are four wide belt loops (rather than industry standard two) to keep Santa’s especially large belt hoisted around his “bowl full of jelly” belly at all times. There is also a “parade sleeve,” a bit of tight fabric around the wrists that keeps the oversized sleeve in place so it doesn’t fall down around his elbows when he waves from his sleigh.
The pants also have pockets to keep extra candy canes (or, you know, a cell phone). But, most importantly, the suits are sized for the kinds of larger men who are typically playing this jolly and girthy fellow, which many manufacturers don’t take into account.
Planet Santa also has its own boots, which Williamson designed and has made at the same Chinese factory that makes most of the “stripper shoes” you’ll find in America. The boots are cut especially wide not just around the calf, but all the way down to the ankle to accommodate Santa’s larger leg and the bulky velvet pants that he’s going to tuck into said boots. “The factory kept sending us samples and we were telling them, ‘Wider, wider,’” Williamson says about designing the boots eight years ago. “They thought we were absolutely insane.” Now, of course, they’re favorites among Santas from coast to coast.
Williamson won’t disclose how much money Planet Santa brings in, but “it’s enough that it bought me my first Mercedes, and also my second, third, fourth, and fifth.” He took a bit of an odd path into the industry. He and his father bought Pierre’s Costumes in 1994 and Williamson made a website for the business in 1996, when the World Wide Web was just taking off. The site was getting tons of traffic, but they couldn’t figure out an e-commerce strategy with one brick-and-mortar shop in Philly that specializes in theatrical costume rentals and making mascots.
Williamson decided a website for Santas was a good bet. Not only are Santas spending a bit more on their suits and all the attendant accouterment than the average costume buyer, Planet Santa is a seasonal business, so he thought it wouldn’t take up too much time. Williamson designed and coded the whole website himself. “At the beginning of September my father and I decided to invest $5,000 each, and if we broke even by the end of December, it was worth it,” he recalls. “We broke even in three days.”
The one mistake Williamson made in those early years was not buying the reverse of his URL — to this day, Santa Planet is run by a competitor. Though he no longer codes the website himself, Planet Santa still doesn’t have tons of bells and whistles, mostly because the older demographic that’s playing Santa doesn’t love the world of cyber purchasing. “I mean, we have gentlemen that send us checks through the mail still to pay for their order, because they don't do things the way we do. It’s not click, click, click, done,” Valosen says, adding that Planet Santa gets a large number of phone orders from Santas who see things online but want to talk to someone about completing the sale.
Regardless of how often the site updates, Williamson says that the business grows every year. That might be because there are fewer and fewer Santas to go around, because more and more retailers want to have the bearded one in their store. Santa Bailey says that, this year, there is something of a Santa shortage, with all of the 5,000 to 6,000 (by his estimation) “real beard” Santas getting booked so early that many malls, stores, and other outlets are bringing in lots of “traditional bearded Santas” (those that use prosthetic facial hair rather than growing their own) to give kids a warm lap.
Valosen says that, along with semi-custom suits, the other trends in the industry are Santas wanting a burgundy color outfit rather than the traditional poinsettia red, and also longer and longer Santa hats each year. Just like hemlines, the length of Santa hats go up and down depending on the times.
However, she says it’s her and her staff’s willingness to take those orders by phone and walk each Santa through the changes they make that makes Planet Santa the tops in the community. “Honestly, I care about who they are, where they are, and to get them the right thing,” she says. “Even if I'm selling them the $200 suit, if it's the right suit for him, I would much rather do that than give him a $500 Santa suit that's going to be too heavy and too thick. It's the customer service aspect of it that will win out for us in the long run.”
Williamson is also happy with his place in the community, taking time to make sure every customer is satisfied and that Planet Santa has a presence at all the Santa conventions that happen throughout the year, including Discover Santa, the big convention held every year in July in Branson, Missouri. Though he only has that one memory of dressing as Santa, Williamson totally gets why these gentlemen do it year after year. “It warms your heart. It’s so corny, but it does,” he says. “If you play Santa you get such a good feeling, and I see how it’s addictive to these people. You feel awesome. Once they’re in, they’re in for life.”