Elf on the Shelf Founder on the Brand’s Unlikely but Enduring Success

The Elf on the Shelf has grown into a holiday tradition for millions.
Image courtesy The Lumistella Company

It’s hard to break into the Christmas canon — just ask anyone who’s tried to come up with a song that will top Brenda Lee or Mariah Carey on the holiday charts. And yet The Elf on the Shelf has defied the odds and become not just a holiday hit, but an enduring tradition that is now shared by millions of families around the world.

The Elf on the Shelf doll and book.
Image courtesy The Lumistella Company

The success of the brand feels like something of a Christmas miracle to Co-founder and Co-CEO Christa Pitts, who launched the Elf on the Shelf with her twin sister, Chanda Bell, and mother, Carol Aebersold, in 2005. Based on a tradition that Aebersold invented for her young children in the ’70s, the trio dipped into 401(K)s and racked up credit card bills; Pitts even sold her home to fund the company. After being turned down by multiple publishers, they decided to self-publish their holiday fable.

Flash-forward 18 years and the original book has become the fourth-bestselling children’s book of the last 25 years, while the brand has expanded with new characters and lore, a plethora of multi-media content and — the ultimate sign of holiday success — a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. This November alone, more than 170,000 Elf on the Shelf kits were sold on Amazon.

Christa Pitts, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of The Lumistella Company, parent company of The Elf on the Shelf.
Christa Pitts, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of The Lumistella Company, parent company of The Elf on the Shelf. (Image courtesy The Lumistella Company)

(If you haven’t been around young kids during the past 18 years, you’ll be forgiven for not being familiar with this new holiday tradition. Brush up quickly on the story of Santa and his “Scout Elves” and how the tradition works here.)


The original book was written by Aebersold and Co-CEO Bell, who still leads content creation for the Elf on the Shelf’s ever-expanding storytelling initiatives. Pitts was roped in early on to bring her retail and media acumen to the endeavor, having cut her teeth as an on-air host at QVC.

As Scout Elves flit in and out of houses (including this reporter’s) around the world, Pitts sat down with Retail TouchPoints to talk about the magic that drives the Elf on the Shelf’s success, and what lies ahead for the brand.  

Retail TouchPoints (RTP): After all the trials and tribulations at the beginning of the company, when did you know you had a hit on your hands?

Christa Pitts: My sister and I grew up with this tradition. We would race out of bed to go find our elf, and the minute we did it was joyous. Even if it had flown just an inch, we knew it had given the most fantastical report to Santa. So in our hearts we knew if we could just get it into enough hands, the kids would become our word-of-mouth ambassadors. And sure enough, they did.

I would say it was probably 2007 when [the brand] started getting a little more notoriety. Jennifer Garner was photographed carrying it down the street by the paparazzi in New York, and to our huge surprise, the phone just started ringing off the hook. That’s really when I knew we probably had something very special here.

RTP: How do you account for the fact that you were able to break into a category already full of long-held, beloved family traditions?

Pitts: Well, at its core this tradition is extraordinarily simple.  You don’t have to be the smartest child; you don’t have to be the most athletic; you don’t have to be the wealthiest family; and it doesn’t require batteries. There are just two basic rules: You can’t touch the elf or it can lose its magic, which continues to make it special [compared to] everything else that you have in your house and play with. The other rule is that the elf can’t talk to you. And if you think about that from a higher-level perspective, certainly as a parent, what you try to teach your children is that if they’re watching and listening, they’re not talking. So it’s a very simple tradition, which makes it easy for any family to adopt.

Second, it’s affordable. This is not something you buy on Christmas morning, open it up and it’s done. It comes back year after year after year, not just for your childhood, but for your entire lifetime. We’re seeing a huge resurgence all over college campuses, because kids remember it and they want to bring it to their own spaces [even as they get older].

Lastly, it’s genuine. I mean, we’re not a bunch of marketers who sat in a room and tried to figure out how to “own” Christmas. We just wanted to share our family tradition with the world.

RTP: How much of the brand’s success do you think has to do with it just being a great idea, and how much of it was business acumen?

Pitts: I think it’s both, I truly do. I cherish what I learned at QVC. I was working in a world where not only was it the best-of-the-best in understanding true sales skills, but you also had buyers and planners and merchants and high-level executives and entrepreneurs all in the same space together. Looking back on it, it was quite the think tank. You had this extraordinary group of entrepreneurial-minded people working together within the reality of the business world and sales goals and business objectives, so I learned an enormous amount. I learned how large retail works. I learned a lot of the pitfalls. I learned about focus. I learned about pricing strategies and that if you start discounting something, that’s really all anyone will ever be willing to pay for it.

That being said, I do believe our genuine love of this tradition that we had and the authenticity of it [also played a large part]. If a marketing team got ahold of the packaging of the Elf on the Shelf, they would have said it would never work in a million years — you can’t see the product; it’s watercolor; it’s not vector art; there’s this letter on the back from some mom nobody knows. There’s nothing about it that screams marketing genius, yet we have been effective at letting people know just how magical and unique it really is.

RTP: Every year, this brand sparks a slew of conversations online about creative ways to place the elf each night, and also parents complaining about the responsibility of it all. How do you respond, first to those parents, but also to those larger conversations every year?

Scout Elves at Play kit for parents.
Image courtesy The Lumistella Company

Pitts: In the book, it couldn’t be more simple: The elf flies back and forth to Santa and it lands in a new place every day. That’s what it was like when I was growing up, and there are millions of elves where that is all that happens in their house, and it’s still magical and wonderful.

But I am very grateful for people that have such creativity and are able to bring their children joy in ways I could never have dreamed up. And our team definitely engages with it. We have the Scout Elves at Play kit that came out years ago, which is all about different ideas to inspire your Scout Elf and comes with little props. And we’ve got Polar Props as well. This year there’s a full baking kit. Everything is itty-bitty, so kids can lay the stuff out and the elf can “choose” to engage with it, which makes it fun and easy if a parent needs a little inspiration.

RTP: Hypothetically, a customer could buy this and never buy anything else from you again. How else are you continuing to propel the business beyond just bringing in new customers?

Pitts: It’s an evolution. At first our mission was [putting] our elf on every shelf. But then as we grew the business, children all over the world were writing, emailing, calling our offices, sending us actual letters and asking us about Santa and the North Pole. What does my Elf eat? Does it have pets? What are the pet’s names? Where do they live? What happens at the North Pole when my Elf isn’t with me?

When social media came onto the scene, it became apparent that kids and their families were looking to us for these answers. Once we realized that, it altered our vision, [which became] to own the stories of Santa’s North Pole. We do that through characters, stories and lore, entertainment, experiences and product. When we allowed that mission to come up alongside our vision, it gave us a completely different construct for how we engage, what we do and how we do it. It’s a much more omnichannel way to approach business.

RTP: The actual company, The Lumistella Company, is less well known than the brand Elf on the Shelf. Is that by design?

Pitts: Actually The Lumistella Company is fairly recent. We launched the name in 2020. We had this giant rollout plan, and then COVID hit, so that took a backseat, but we moved forward with the name change anyway. We used to have the worst name on the planet. It came about like many entrepreneurial stories do, where a CPA walked into my sister’s office and said, “Hey, I have to register with the Secretary of State’s office, can you sign this document?” It was CCA and B, LLC [after the names of Carol’s three children, Christa, Chanda and son Brandon]. Definitely made up by a CPA.

We wanted something that had meaning and could represent our company as well as what we wanted to stand for. If you were to translate it, “lumistella” means either “snow star” or “light star,” depending on which language you’re looking at.

Now we’re in the process of bringing it back around full circle, so next year we’re going to be elevating the company name itself and redoing the company website. We’ll also be rolling out an endorsed brand name for all of our consumer products. It’s an opportunity for us to have a naming convention that’s similar to Wizarding World. If you think of Wizarding World, you’ve got Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts, and Wizarding World represents that whole space. So we have a name that will be announced in the next few weeks that does that same thing. It’s going to allow the Elf on the Shelf and Elf Pets and Elf Mates and all of the various characters yet to be made have a world they can live in.

RTP: What else does the future hold for the Elf on the Shelf and Lumistella?

Pitts: We’ve announced a studio partnership with Netflix, and in short order we should start seeing information come out about a major motion picture. We also have a Food Network program that debuted this year, The Elf on the Shelf Sweet Showdown, and there’s a lot more to come in the non-scripted space for our brands and products. And we also announced a partnership with HarperCollins. They are going to be releasing our first-ever middle grade novel in 2024, which is the backstory on how the elves became magical. It’s a really cool glimpse into the enchanted world of Santa Claus.

RTP: That must feel amazing after all the publisher rejections years ago to now have a multi-title deal with HarperCollins.

Pitts: It does, it’s somewhat surreal. I feel, and I know Chanda feels this way, that there’s so much more for us to accomplish. There are so many ways that we still want families to be able to create joyful moments that come from our world. But when I do take a moment and think about all the families that are enjoying their own traditions, their own moments, hitting their husband in the middle of the night to be like, “Oh my God, did you move it?” This brand has become part of people’s true inner life, and that’s pretty special.

Carol (center) with twin daughters Christa and Chanda.
Carol (center) with twin daughters Christa and Chanda. (Image courtesy The Lumistella Company)

RTP: What does your mom think about this little game she created for her children having become an international phenomenon?

Pitts: When I think about what started this, it was just something for [my sister and mom] to do together, it was never meant to be some huge enterprise, so I think mom revels in it. Her voice is actually featured in one of the specials, and I know that no matter what, for the rest of time, my nieces and nephews and family members have that voice captured forever. It’s her legacy.

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