Ask Joe Baer about holiday window displays and he throws around names like Linda Fargo and Simon Doonan as easily as most people name sports stars and celebrities.

Ask Joe Baer about holiday window displays and he throws around names like Linda Fargo and Simon Doonan as easily as most people name sports stars and celebrities.

The designers, who respectively made names for themselves creating New York window displays for Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys, are celebrities to Baer, founder of visual merchandising company ZenGenius. They're also a source of inspiration for the Short North's annual window decorating contest. ZenGenius, which has worked with clients like Limited Brands and Columbus State Community College on retail design and event planning, is a returning sponsor for the Holiday Hop competition.

ZenGenius actually helped create the display for liquor store Europia - the inspiration is Sex and the City and where the ladies would buy their drinks if they lived in Columbus. Baer also offered advice to a few other retailers, but regardless of his professional attachment, he's as excited to see all the displays as any other looky-loo.

Why sponsor a window display contest?

One of the reasons we do it is so we can drive more foot traffic to the Short North. A lot of cities, you'd grow up going downtown to see the store windows and it'd be sort of a family activity.

We don't really have that option here in Columbus. So I've been urging the store owners to have more fun with their windows, do more displays, really get creative and really push the envelope.

This year, the theme is "shop outside the box," which is encouraging people not to just visit the big-box retailers and shop at all the malls, but to shop outside the box and come down to the Short North and support your stores locally.

[The contest] is getting more and more exciting. Last year, our first-place winner was also a restaurant, Surly Girl, which is unexpected. Usually when you think of store windows, you think of the retailers, but it's nice to see the bars and restaurants getting involved also.

How many businesses are participating in the contest?

Usually we have between 20 and 25 participants. There's at least a dozen or so that are really good contenders. Collier West always does a good window. Definitely watch Surly Girl this year. What the Rock?! is going to be good.

Flower Child's is awesome - spinning mannequin in one window, spinning snowman in another. Movement is always good in these windows. I can't wait to see what Cookware Sorcerer is going to do - she always does neat things. Loot always does a great job. We'll just have to see who will be victorious.

How are windows judged?

Usually we pick five local celebrities that go around. We narrow it down to 10 windows and then we take the five judges around in the ZenGenius van to do the final judging. I think this year we're picking three winners in different categories: best use of the theme, most creative and best overall.

How do you think the window displays add to Holiday Hop?

I think they make people want to window-shop. There's a nostalgia thing to just coming down here and not necessarily even shopping. It's free to window-shop, so I think it's great when the bars and restaurants are hopping at night and the stores are closed. You can walk around and still get ideas.

I think we also want a laugh, especially this year, so I hope a lot of the windows have some humor or just unexpected moments that always spurs talk.

These businesses in the Short North have to do extra things to get more traffic down here. The foot traffic comes to the malls easier, so I think making exciting windows is a great thing for the neighborhood. Plus, I hope we can get away with some things that you can't do at Easton and Polaris.