EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 8, 2012

To attract shoppers, retailers adding entertainment factor

By Joyce Smith
The Kansas City Star

---- — Just putting a price on a product and sticking it on a shelf is so old school.

And with consumers buying more each year online, brick-and-mortar retailers are working harder to add entertainment to their mix — from American Girl’s scavenger hunts to the Art of Shaving’s product demonstrations.

These experiences are something consumers can’t get from online shopping, so they drive traffic to the stores and keep customers there longer. They also build brand loyalty.

“You can buy a product just about everywhere. They are trying to add a different element so it is not just about the product,” said Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer of WSL/Strategic Retail, retail strategists and futurists based in New York. “They are giving people a reason to play - like Converse, where you can customize your sneaker - making it worth it to go into the store. A sense of place and a place to stay.”

Retailers have been using entertainment to attract shoppers for years, from mall carousels to the Great Mall of America’s whole amusement park. But with advances in technology and growing pressure from online competition, more retailers are adding interactive attractions inside their stores.

Savvy retailers engage customers with entertainment options, from watching to fully participating.

For 40 years, Bass Pro Shops has stayed open on Thanksgiving Day, drawing customers out after they have downed their Thanksgiving dinner for family-friendly attractions - free photos in Santa’s Wonderland, aquariums that re-create scenes from a local lake and free rides. Or as one customer put it, a “few free hours of entertainment.” And the shops hold free special events year-round.

Bass Pro Shops customers enter through a turnstile, just as they do for attractions.

“We’re the Disney World of outdoor stores ... a natural history museum of the area they are in, an aquarium, an art gallery with all the beautiful murals, antiques and conservation education. And oh, by the way, we do retail,” said Larry Whiteley, spokesman for Bass Pro Shops.

Outdoor retail rival Cabela’s knows the game, too. It promotes its museum-quality animal displays and aquariums, along with special events and promotions each weekend.

And another sporting goods competitor, Scheels, has made a mark with its entertaining stores, which it likens to Disneyland. Since the stores added attractions such as Ferris wheels, the company says the average customer stay has increased substantially.

Build-A-Bear Workshop was one of the innovators in “experiential” mall retailing 15 years ago, having children choose and name their bears - and later other animals - as the huggable toys were put together and stuffed. Now it is starting to roll out new designs with several new interactive experiences, including putting the stuffed animals at children’s height so they can touch and play with them, and digital screens where children can add more personalized sounds and music to their stuffed toys. Five Build-A-Bear stores have been converted to the new concept, and one new store has opened.

Interactive experiences are a key way American Girl sets its 14 stores apart from other toy stores.

“In terms of the retail environment, it’s what we’ve come to be known for,” said Stephanie Spanos, spokeswoman for American Girl. “At American Girl, it doesn’t just start and end with just a purchase.”

The American Girl events - some free, others with a fee - create memories and build brand loyalties with its young customers.

On Jan. 1, for instance, it will have interactive events to introduce its 2013 Girl of the Year doll, the name a closely guarded secret until it is announced in late December.

Girls will get to go on a scavenger hunt through the store, visiting an area for a free craft and getting a gift to take home. Past gifts have included a poster of the Doll of the Year. This year’s gift is a surprise.

A dozen of the American Girl stores have cafes where customers can dine with their dolls sitting in a “Treat Seat” with their own tiny cup and saucer. They also have little interactive Table Talkers, conversation starters that the girls can use to start discussions with their mothers and grandmothers: What’s your favorite movie? Favorite memory from childhood?

Some consumers might be trying Microsoft products for the very first time when they walk into one of its 60 stores. But they need not be nervous. Microsoft employees are on hand to make the introductions to new products, let them try them out on site and help them work through any technical issues.

“Technology can be very intimidating for some people, so we try to tear down those barriers,” said Microsoft spokesman Lief Knutson. “When they leave and realize they’ve made the right decision, that builds a lot of repeat business.”

Some of the Art of Shaving stores have barber spas for straight-razor shaves and haircuts. The shop’s shaving experts will take customers through the process for a “perfect shave.” That makes a more intimate connection than if they just bought a can of shaving cream off the shelf at their local discount store.

“When they can see that shaving brush in action, the rich warm lather, the sensation of the aftershave balm, the aromas of the gloves, the peppers - it lends to the interactive experience as well,” said Cari White, regional director at the Art of Shaving.