For generations, Salvation Army bell ringers have been a symbol of the Christmas season. But faced with a shortage of volunteers to stand by kettles during its holiday fund drive...

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ATLANTA — For generations, Salvation Army bell ringers have been a symbol of the Christmas season. But faced with a shortage of volunteers to stand by kettles during its holiday fund drive this year, the charity is trying something new across the South: mechanized cardboard cutouts instead of real people.

Like many fund-raising campaigns that depend on volunteers, the Salvation Army’s red-kettle drive — which runs from Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve — has been struggling to get enough people to stand outside stores in the cold and entice shoppers to make donations.

The sluggish economy, coupled with a decision by Target this year to ban nonprofit solicitations at its stores, has threatened the Salvation Army’s campaign to provide food and toys to families across America, officials said. Major chains such as Toys R Us, Barnes & Noble and Kohl’s have similar policies, and stores such as Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club restrict the number of days bell ringers are allowed.

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The kettle program, which began in 1891, is expected to generate at least $90 million this year, 87 percent of which will go to service programs. And with more than 20,000 kettles positioned across the country, the Salvation Army needs thousands of volunteers.

So in 14 states — from Texas to Virginia — fake, mechanical bell ringers called “standees” are taking up the slack this year at more than 100 Books-A-Million and Hibbett Sporting Goods stores. If the experiment is successful, the Salvation Army will consider expanding it nationwide next year, officials said.

The Salvation Army has tried hiring people, but few are lining up for the seasonal job that in some areas pays as little as $6 an hour. It also has set up a Web site and toll-free telephone number to receive credit-card donations, but nothing works better than someone standing at the doorway of a retail store beckoning shoppers who are already in the holiday spirit, officials said. In another innovation, some bell ringers are accepting credit-card donations on the spot.

Anderson Media, which owns Books-A-Million, paid for the cutouts and promised to match donations at its stores up to a total of $10,000.

The automated color cutouts of an Atlanta couple, Captains Bobby and Ann Westmoreland, dressed in their officer uniforms are equipped with a motion sensor that causes the greeters to raise an arm and ring a cardboard bell when someone walks by. A recorded voice says: “Merry Christmas. God bless you.”

To guard against theft, the “standees” are attached by chain to a large tripod. The kettle, also attached with a chain, has a slot on top large enough to accept coins and bills.

“When you ask most people about the Salvation Army, they say, ‘You ring bells at Christmas.’ We are afraid if that tradition goes away, people won’t know who we are,” said Chris Priest, spokesman for the organization’s southern territory.

Salvation Army officials said kettles won’t be seen this year at many other usual locations because of the lack of volunteers.

“We are always challenged this time of year to find volunteers for the multitude of tasks that have to be done, but every year we look back and say we made it,” Priest said.

“There are so many couples that work during the day, and the elderly don’t want to stand outside for hours ringing a bell. We don’t want to get to the point where we have to draw the line and say, ‘We can’t help you because your fellow man did not help us.’ “