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The eXperience Factor

By now, most of us are used to living in a world where shopping is a seamless, convenient 24/7 activity. Frantic work schedules, shorter Sunday hours, or that onerous “trek into town” matter little when we can purchase anything we want online, anytime, day or night.

In cyberspace the stores are always open.

What then can retailers do to keep us walking through their doors when we can stay sitting comfortably on our sofas with exactly the same amount of purchasing power?

The answer is all in the experience.

The shift from store to venue

Shopping online has been likened to watching a play on television—you get the story (or product) but not the full dimensions of the experience. From Gogglebox (a British documentary show that observes people watching TV in their living rooms) to performance art, sometimes the spectacle needs to be experienced directly to be fully appreciated. So, why shouldn’t brick-and-mortar stores tap into the power of theatre to engage, bringing the shopping experience alive in fuller dimensions?

In order to credibly play host to a theatrical experience, retailers need to redefine customer’s expectations by moving away from being simply “a store” and towards becoming “a venue.” Making this transition involves confidently presenting a strong point of view and celebrating it across different disciplines.

Of course, the concept of retailer as venue is by no means breaking news. Retailers have been entertaining consumers, creating elaborate displays, and playing host since the department store was born. It’s the pressure to make this shift in a more dramatic manner that has changed in recent years.

At a time when consumers no longer need to visit a store to get the products they want, and everything is available at the touch of a button (and delivered quickly to one’s doorstep), retailers need to work even harder to create a unique sensorial experience for their customers. They must offer something exclusively physical—and something that is unavailable online.

Creating more memorable in-store experiences

One such retailer embracing this approach is London’s Selfridges department store. The spectacle of a 7.5 meter (25-foot) statue with burning torch outside its Oxford Street store last September heralded the opening of “The World of Rick Owens,” a celebration of the designer’s cutting-edge style, and one of Selfridges’ most ambitious projects to date. This multi-sensory experience featured handcrafted furniture, design pieces, a curated selection of books and albums, installations, multimedia content and, oh yes, an exclusive apparel collection. Aesthetically rich with an air of exclusivity, the idea was to give visitor’s insight into Rick’s creative world.

Paul Smith’s flagship store on Albermarle Street welcomes its customers into an emporium of curiosities. Eclectic one-off art pieces, hand-picked vintage furniture, art exhibitions that are always changing, whimsically detailed embellishments, and a room lined with 26,000 dominos all complement one another to form a richly theatrical backdrop and bring the designer’s aesthetic to life. More art gallery than apparel store, the space offers the customer a captivating experience that is both engaging and textural.

If the Paul Smith store has all the rich layering of a classic opera set, then the new Victoria Beckham flagship on Dover Street is, no doubt, minimalist performance art—but exhilarating in its theatricality nonetheless. Here, the fashion designer revels in her penchant for pared-down, structured simplicity within an environment that displays its garments in creative tension, static but with a sense of latent energy, like dancers about to break into movement. Setting a chic backdrop for her elegant offering, a grand concrete staircase, staged lighting, and sculptural fixtures are all part of the set and add drama to this theatre of cool.

However, beautiful and interesting as these in-store experiences are, at the heart of all this theatricality is a sound strategy. Selfridges, in its run-up to the lucrative holiday period, commanded attention in a big way with its impressive The Masters campaign, which included the Rick Owens project mentioned above. Paul Smith is boldly differentiating and immersing shoppers in the refined eclecticism the designer is known for. And Victoria Beckham’s impactful debut on London’s Dover Street is a savvy and engaging way of converting the Beckhams’ fame into sales both in-store and online.

By creating a strong point of view, captivating environments, and encouraging audiences that are hungry for more, the store is reborn, with the “venue” as the headline act, and the online experience as a hugely successful side show. The overarching message? Live it, breathe it, applaud it; buy it.

If you would like to contact Adam Shilton about any of the opinions or insights expressed in this article, please send an email to


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