Show Biz Shopping

Savvy retailers now sell their stores as entertainment experiences

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It used to feel quite exciting to ogle the downtown department stores’ Christmas windows or to spritz yourself with Chanel at the perfume counter. But those retail thrills of yesteryear pale in comparison to today’s idea of shopping as entertainment.

It’s not enough, in other words, for an emporium to spark excitement through a seductive shoe salon; now it must also have a basketball court, live music, and a few dozen movie characters around to attract the crowds. Tourists wait in line for hours to enter the Warner Brothers Studio Store on New York’s East 57th Street, reports New York (Sept. 5, 1994). Along with its Daffy Duck dolls and Superman ceramics, the store features life-sized cartoon figures, interactive television, a Bat Plane, wall murals, and hundreds of video screens.

The stunning success of Warner Brothers’ 78 stores (30 more are scheduled to open this year) and Disney’s 300 has inspired similar efforts by Sony, MGM, MCA/Universal, and others, as well as 50,000-square-foot sports stores called NikeTown and Planet Reebok, with Bo Jackson statues, golf courses complete with sand traps, and piped-in jock sounds (tennis ball whacks, sneaker squeaks). “Entertainment retail is the most significant breakthrough of the ‘90s,” a retail trade journal editor told the New York design magazine Metropolis (Dec. 1994). “They don't sell necessities, but shopping fantasy, and people are willing to pay handsomely for that.”

And you don’t even have to leave home to live the fantasy, Metropolis author Melissa Biggs points out. Home shopping channels, which have gone from hawking a few cubic zirconias to generating $3 billion in sales last year, are getting increasingly sophisticated, offering celebrities and talk-show formats to sell silk pantsuits.

But despite the indisputable success of TV and catalog shopping, can repeating your Visa number over the phone ever really compare with being temporary lord of the manor at a Ralph Lauren store? Perhaps the growing popularity of the glitzy show-biz stores actually represents a very human reaction to the efficient but ultimately empty experience of solo home shopping that’s what many retailers hope. The boom of in-store spectacles is certainly a reaction to this new competition. For as every true shopping junkie knows, “part of the thrill of acquiring goods [is] the store adventure,” as Biggs puts it in Metropolis.

“Surge shopping” is how Mats Gustafson defines, in Harper’s Bazaar (Dec. 1994), those most thrilling of retail moments, and she’s emphatic that catalog buying just won’t bring them on. Surge shopping, she says, is “a kind of shopping that was like no other, one that called forth and fulfilled something elemental and essential in the soul.” That may sound like an overblown reaction to buying a leather skirt, but there must be something to it. After all, Tweety Bird sightings alone do not account for the epic popularity of places like Minnesota’s Mall of America, which attracts planeloads of shoppers from Germany and busloads from Iowa, or the Forum Shops of Las Vegas, a retail Mecca currently enjoying sales of $900 per square foot (more than twice what is usually considered outstanding).

If cartoon characters and video screens can’t explain the masses at the mall, what about one of life’s most basic urges? Gustafson, who confesses that her surge shopping “always comes with a certain warmth between the legs,” compares shopping to sex, calling both “an exultation [sic] of self, an affirmation of who you think you are.” A similar notion is put forth by University of Minnesota art history professor and popular culture critic Karal Ann Marling, who says “dress is a real autoerotic experience, quite apart from how anybody else feels about you when you put it on.”

But Marling also has a somewhat loftier explanation for the pull of the purchase: shopping as creative act. Art once articulated feelings we had about the world and ourselves, Marling told the Twin Cities Reader (Aug. 10, 1994), but now that role is filled by the things we buy. “Enjoying one's life experiences to the fullest includes being able to try on alternatives to the face you carry around with you everyday—shopping malls let a person do that,” Marling says.

So what are we left with here? Is trying on a Victoria’s Secret bustier the modern-day equivalent of composing an opera, or is it just another way to get away? Does shopping-as-entertainment represent an extreme example of consumer sickness, acquisitiveness elevated to an art form, or is the mall, as Marling would have it, a sort of new museum, one that allows us “to exercise a lot of aesthetic muscles... all sorts of judgments about color and line and shape and form . . . [and] a lot wider emotional scope”?

Perhaps in the end the new show-biz shopping is all these things—consumerism, art, and diversion—and in that lies its overwhelming attraction. As Las Vegas Forum shop designer Terry Dougall explains in Metropolis, “Everything we do is theater. Good theater has an appeal far stronger than other types of design: It allows us to escape from our responsibilities as adults and find ourselves in a fantasy world.”