It’s 5 p.m. at Nordstrom’s flagship store in downtown Seattle, and there’s a 2½-hour wait to see Santa Claus.

This isn’t a scene from “Miracle on 34th Street.” Customers get text-message alerts about their spot in line, and they can consult the schedule if they’re seeking a black, Asian or sign-language Santa.

At Macy’s in New York’s Herald Square, visitors can register online for their visit to the 13,000- square-foot Santaland. Other retail centers have spruced up their Santa villages with interactive “Frozen” and “Shrek” landscapes.

In 2014, retailers are relying more heavily on the jolly old elf to drive customers into stores, and they’re using increasingly sophisticated tools to make him as enticing as possible.

Even as the economy rebounds, shopping-mall foot traffic declined last month. That’s putting pressure on stores to offer in-person experiences. After all, Santa’s lap is one thing that can’t be ordered on Amazon.com.

“Santa is more important,” said Jan Kniffen, chief executive officer of J. Rogers Kniffen Worldwide Enterprises, a consulting and equity-research firm in New York. “Anything you can do to get that person to show up.”

Santa’s retail career began in the 1860s when Rowland H. Macy brought him in to help hawk dry goods at his New York shop. The Macy’s Santaland was born in 1902, and it grew to attract about 300,000 visitors a year to the 34th Street store in Manhattan.

The concept caught on with retailers, and Saint Nick is now a fixture everywhere from Wal-Mart to Bass Pro Shops – with kids waiting in long lines to share their gift lists. A gun range in Georgia even lets patrons take Santa pictures with a selection of firearms.

Across the country, 850,000 kids visited Santa over the post-Thanksgiving weekend alone this year, according to an estimate by the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group.

PROFESSIONAL TRAINING

With Christmas just days away, retailers are counting on the visits to drum up gift purchases and impulse buys. About 70 percent of shoppers planned to do some holiday shopping while they were at the mall to see Santa, an ICSC survey found.

“It’s a pure traffic driver, and anyone with kids is looking for things to do,” said Ani Collum, a partner at Boston-based consulting firm Retail Concepts.

The Santa experience has changed with the times. In the age of the selfie, many malls and retailers now allow parents to snap pictures with their phones – rather than using a traditional photographer. Some places are encouraging people to bring their pets.

The Santa business has spawned training programs, such as the Professional Santa Claus School in Denver. Susen Mesco, the school’s founder, estimates that there are now as many as 5,000 professionally trained Santas in the U.S.

That’s providing stores with a talent supply, she said. A mall Santa earns an average of $17 to $22 hourly, Mesco said. She knows of Kris Kringles in New York who have made as much as $500 an hour.

“It’s becoming more of a tradition because they’re more available,” she said.

In the Santa arms race, some malls are adding kids’ favorite movie characters. Mall developer Taubman Centers Inc. erected 30-foot-tall “Frozen” ice palaces at 10 of its shopping centers across the country, pairing the display with a Santa’s village. It includes clips from the Walt Disney Co. film, falling snow and a light show. Families visiting the spectacle have waited in line for up to five hours, said William Taubman, chief operating officer of Taubman Centers.

DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., meanwhile, has teamed up with shopping malls to put Shrek characters together with Saint Nick. Parents have to schedule their visits online, helping eliminate long lines. Hidden cameras take candid pictures that parents can buy.

“Now you really need to up the ante,” Collum said.

LIVE VIDEO CALLS TO SANTA

Even as technology helps enhance the experience, it could eventually undermine it. A growing number of online services let kids video-chat with Santa. Mesco has placed 300 students from her school with Talk to Santa, a website that sells live video calls with Santa for $19.95.

Online alternatives are adding to pressure to make in-store events as thrilling as possible. At the DreamWorks installations, there’s a virtual sleigh trip to the North Pole led by Shrek.

The Macy’s in New York still considers itself the authority on Mr. Claus, and its display is highly orchestrated. Employees dressed as elves stand sentry along the route to Santa, sporting red-and-white stocking caps and walkie-talkies.

Sponsorships help defray the costs: There are Aflac-branded ducks, Build-A- Bear Workshop animatronic reindeer and giant Domino Sugar gingerbread men overseeing cookie baking.

The online reservations reduce hassles, providing an express lane to customers who plan ahead. That helps both the retailer and consumers, since time spent in line is time that could be spent shopping. The elves also can accommodate requests: Customers seeking a black Santa, for instance, are shepherded to the right place.

At Macy’s, Santa never breaks character – even when he’s being interviewed by a reporter. While jazzy holiday music played in the background, he said the most popular request this year from kids was for “Frozen” toys, along with more cars, trains and video games. One 3-year-old girl asked for a poker set and $10.

“Children don’t change – the wishes change,” Santa said. “I believe in children. As long as they believe in me, I’ll believe in them.”