Susan shifted uncomfortably in her new chair as she waited for Saint Nick to respond. Too many of Benton’s awards and photographs were still on the wall for her to feel comfortable doing business in this office. The near-empty mahogany desk stretched between her and the red-suited sprite on the other side of it like a still black sea. Santa looked back at her with a quizzical expression.
“Well I don’t know about that, Suzie. I don’t suppose we’re taking anything from you. You have just as many iPhones to sell as you did before.”
“Yes, but that’s not really the point.” Susan cleared her throat. “I know you’re not sneaking into our warehouses and filling up your sleigh with purloined phones.” She deliberately let the silence hang in the air for a moment. The company had done an extensive five-year study and could find no hiccups in their inventory beyond the usual shrinkage and minor employee infractions, but security had been increased nonetheless.
“Every iPhone you give out is one that somebody isn’t buying from us. That’s money out of our pockets. That’s money out of our shareholders’ pockets.”
Santa’s eyes widened. “People are asking for these phones, my dear. I’m not treating them any differently than I do any other toy I give out on Christmas.”
Susan leaned back in her chair. “You run a workshop, right Santa?”
“Of course,” he chuckled.
“And that takes some real planning, right? You have to keep track of who’s naughty and nice all over the world, and figure out what everyone wants?”
“Well, the lists help. And there’s that little something extra from the Christmas spirit of course.”
“Sure, sure,” Susan swiveled her chair back and forth a bit. She fidgeted in her favorite suit. “But you still have to plan out all the logistics, hmm? The materials you’ll need, the number of toys you’ll have to make, all that stuff. A lot must go into that”
“Oh my yes, but I don’t know what that–”
“We do the exact same thing, Santa. We spend millions of dollars figuring out exactly what people want and exactly how much they want it. And we make business plans, and build supply chains, and set marketing budgets. We fine tune everything to get it just right. We’re running a workshop of our own here.”
“I see what you mean but–”
“It’s a very delicate balance, Mr. Claus.” Susan leaned forward and gestured grandiosely. “It’s the product of thousands of hours of work from some of the best minds and hardest working people in the industry. And it’s still all very precarious.” She put her hands flat on the desk. “We have these funny, damnable things we call demand curves, Mr. Claus. And you’re…well, you’re screwing them up.”
“Excuse me?” Santa quickly sat up straight, his jelly-bowl belly jiggling with the motion.
Susan looked down at a post-it note with sales figures scribbled in a nigh-unreadable hand. “Every iPhone you hand out is a lost sale for us. That means excess inventory. That means lower returns. That means falling stock prices and sinking profits. And that means that people lose their jobs.”
Santa’s eyes fell. “I don’t want to take away anyone’s livelihood…especially during the holidays.”
He looked around the room. “But surely a company like this can’t be having too much trouble,” he said, brightening. “I’ve been working out of the same office for seven hundred years now! And even with the Bumble Brothers renovations from last Christmas, we don’t have anything nearly as fancy as all this!” Santa let out a hearty guffaw. “You couldn’t possibly need help from a silly old elf like me!”
Susan folded her hands. “A company like ours has to project a certain image, Mr. Claus. We have to be about something. When people buy our products, they’re not just buying them for the ones and zeroes. They’re buying them to be a part of something–something bigger than themselves.” Susan leaned back in her chair. “We’re trying to cultivate something here–to go back to a time when there was a little bit more to all this. We’re trying to give our brand meaning. We think we have something special here, and frankly, Santa, you’re diluting that.”
“Tarnishing it, even, if you’ll pardon my candor. Brands have to have a certain exclusivity, a certain sheen to them. If everyone can have something, then it’s not special.”
“Ho ho ho Suzie, but if everyone is a part of something, then that something’s especially special!” Santa gave Susan a jolly grin.
“I certainly know some people here who think it would be special if everyone bought one of our phones!” A genuine laugh escaped her lips for the first time in weeks. She thought she might be getting through to him.
“I’m just making a simple point, Santa.” Her eyes widened just a little and she smiled. “This is an important time for people in our industry. We know that you’re just doing your job, but we feel that it’s disrupting something significant for a lot of people, and we just want a little bit of…courtesy from you. That’s truly all that we’re asking. We don’t think you’re bad. We don’t think you mean poorly. We’d just like a little courtesy in light of what this whole thing means to us.”
“So you want me stop giving people iPhones?”
“No! No no no no no! Perish the thought.” Susan waved her hands. “We’d just like for you to pay us for them,” she said, offering an encouraging smile.
“Oh Suzie, I can’t do that!”
“I know it’s not how you usually do things, but hear me out!”
“We don’t make any money, Suzie! We’re a non-profit! Even the elves get paid in candy canes!” Santa began digging through his bag. “I know Peppermint stashed the forms in here somewhere. Never trust a snowman with government filings, I swear!”
“Wait wait wait, Santa! Listen to me!” She spoke quickly now. “We would give you the absolute best price we give anyone. You’d be a ‘most favored nation’ among our purchasers because of what you’ve meant to us over the years. The founder’s own kids don’t even get that!” She looked squarely at St. Nicholas and lowered her voice. “We would really make you a fair deal; you have my word on that. And just think, you could go to sleep at Christmas each year and have the peace of mind that your whole operation would be completely above board!”
Santa stopped rummaging through his bag, met Susan’s gaze, and shook his head. “Suzie, we’ve made all the toys ourselves for centuries, from wooden train sets to those dumb pet rocks. And it’s…it’s a good thing. We make people happy without taking anything from anyone else. It’s just our way. I can’t start changing that now.”
“Let me ask you something, Santa.” Susan scooted closer to the desk. “How do you make those phones?”
“Why magic of course! I mean, Lucius is in charge of electronics, so I really only know the basics of those phones in particular, ho ho ho, but you know how it goes! A sprinkle of this, a dash of that, and tada! Instant present! Straight from Santa Claus himself!”
“Well, Santa, we can’t compete with that. We have production costs and shipping costs and overhead. It’s just not fair to all the folks who don’t have magic!”
“Oh my dear, if you wanted an iPhone for Christmas all you had to do was ask!” Santa chirped merrily.
“That’s not what I meant!” Suzie huffed. “Okay, let me ask you this. How does your head elf know how to make the phones?”
“Well Lucius doesn’t make them himself mostly. I mean, Twilly’s in charge of the actual handiwork; Lucius is more of a design guy, but they both pitch in to make sure that–”
“I mean how do they know what to tell the other elves to make specifically?”
“Oh…well I suppose that’s just part of the wonderful mystery of the season! They just know!”
“What you call the mystery of the season, we might call corporate espionage.”
“Now Suzie!” Santa was taken aback. “I may see you when you’re sleeping, but that’s just not how we do things!”
“We have patents, Santa–patents that say we’re the only folks who can make those phones. And you’re violating them. When you give those phones out to people, they still have our packaging designs and our logos on them right? That’s trademark and copyright infringement right there. And who knows what trade secrets you might have picked up while you were sniffing around!”
“Suzie! I’m just a simple toymaker. I don’t fuss around with this sort of thing. I just look at the lists I get each year, and do my best to give people what they want. It’s important to folks; you know that, Suzie-bear.”
Susan stopped. She swiveled in her chair and gazed out the window for a long moment before sighing.
“We’re offering you a sweetheart deal, Santa. We want you to be able to keep doing exactly what you’re doing. We’d just like our fair share of it. Please, please consider it.”
Santa smiled and his old eyes twinkled a bit as he looked across the desk at her. “Did you know that you’re on my nice list, Suzie?” She started, almost imperceptibly. “It’s true. I’ve been keeping an eye on you. You’ve been doing such a good job this year. Your parents would be very proud.”
Susan stammered a bit, “Th-thank you, Santa, but we still absolutely must discuss–”
“Maybe another time, dear.” Santa stood up and began moving toward the exit with his bag in tow and an irrepressible mirth in his gait. “I’ll talk it over with the elves and get back to you. Merry Christmas! And a Happy New Year!” he bellowed over his shoulder as he pushed past the doors to Susan’s office.
Susan stood up to respond, but could not muster anything to say. Finally she called out after him, “Think hard!” She stumbled over herself for something more. “We can find a process server who can get to the North Pole!”
There was no answer.