Even as many retail companies have been working to reimagine their physical stores with experiential elements ranging from in-store events and interactive displays to entertainment, a whole new wave of businesses are now starting up where the entertainment itself is the main attraction and it’s what’s being sold. Merchandise becomes an afterthought.
From Van Gogh art installations to Harry Potter VR trips to life-size recreations of Friends TV show sets, the new buzzword in the retail business is rapidly becoming “immersive.” Whether it will be a game-changing permanent addition to the world of retailing or just a momentary post-pandemic reaction remains to be seen but right now, right here it is turning up across the country.
Experiences Go Back a Century
Of course, experiences as an element of retail have been around for a very long time. The Siegel Cooper department store of the early 20th century featured a velodrome bicycle test track in its New York City flagship. (Ironically, the building now houses the just reopened Bed Bath & Beyond flagship store.) The Bloomingdale’s model room displays of the late 20th century were nothing if not something to be experienced…it’s just that nobody ever called them experiential back then. The New England home furnishings chain Jordon’s Furniture has included entertainment venues like Imax theaters, zip lines and even liquid fireworks show called Splash in its stores for years.
The experience itself is what’s for sale and that represents an entirely different business model for an emerging sector of the retail business.
More recently, many retailers from national chains like Williams Sonoma to local specialty retailers have been doubling down on in-store events, parties, demos and all manner of participatory activities (at least until Covid put a temporary hold on all of that). Other stores, like RH, Ikea and even new-age retailers like Showfields and Neighborhood Goods all have experiential elements, including a hidden slide at the former and hipster bar at the latter.
Sell More Than Just the Stuff
But at all these stores, the experience is secondary to the merchandise and that’s why this new wave of retailers represent something entirely different. They may offer a gift shop, souvenirs or other product purchase opportunities, but their main business is selling you the experience. And unlike museums, amusement parks or video arcades they are first and foremost retail businesses.
Perhaps the most widely known of this new immersion age is the wave of Van Gogh shows inundating major cities across the country. Van Gogh paintings are projected to huge room-size dimensions, accompanied by new age music and/or words of wisdom from Vincent himself. These enormous paintings swirl around visitors in what can only be described as group psychedelia. In art imitating art, Emily, the heroine of Emily in Paris (HBO) visited oversized Van Gogh in one of the first of these shows.
These immersive experiences began arriving on this side of the Atlantic in spring 2021 and there are now dueling Van Goghs in many areas, each with deceptively similar names. Immersive Van Gogh bills itself as the “The One. The Only. The Original” and who’s to say it isn’t? Original or not, they are now operating at 19 urban locations in North America, charging serious money, starting at $25 a head and that’s before additional VR add-ons, T-shirts, magnets and all the gift shop minutiae. One can expect shows featuring other artists to start popping up before too long although we can’t figure out how they will make Warhol soup cans immersive without visitors climbing into vats full of chicken noodles.
But immersive retail is about much more than just fine art. The new Harry Potter store in Manhattan’s Flatiron District is 22,000 square-feet of total immersion into all things Potter-ish, including two Virtual Reality experiences: Chaos at Hogwarts and Wizards Take Flight. A family of four will pay $136 for that 30-minute-long experience and it is sold out weeks in advance. But there’s more to the story. When’s the last time you encountered retail by appointment (okay, maybe Harry Winston)? Potter fans and fanatics scan a QR code and wait hours to get in. A Warner Brothers emporium, the store is mobbed with excited shoppers of all ages scooping up everything from journals, mugs, jewelry (you can wear Hermione’s charm bracelet on your own wrist) branded apparel, so many wands (some exclusive to the store) and the WB version of Chocolate Frogs. There is something for everyone: stuffed owls. Legos Hogwarts and Dobby toys to fine jewelry and prop-inspired art from graphic artist Miraphora Mina. You shop to the film soundtrack, interact with the cast (virtually), fill up on Butterbeer available in liquid or ice cream form at the Bar within the store, and can have much of the merchandise personalized. Also, when is the last time you have seen a checkout line snake around the center of a store with happy customers waiting patiently? It’s all working, and the average individual checkout is $200-$300. And not to be obsessive, all the staff are super friendly, well informed and helpful.
The Friends Experience is a full-scale model of several of the sets of the popular TV show, located in a suburban Atlanta strip mall. For $48 per person, you get to wander around Monica and Rachel’s kitchen, stop by Central Perk and even try to fit a very large couch up a very narrow staircase…just in case you didn’t have enough stress the last time you moved in real life.
There are also props, costumes and assorted bits and pieces from the TV series, many of which only true afficionados will appreciate. And yes, there is a gift shop complete with the prerequisite t-shirts, tote bags and keychains, but also an official Monica turkey head (you had to be there).
Atlanta seems to be a hotbed for immersive retailing. In addition to the Friends Experience and at least one Van Gogh show, there have been several pop-up experientials including one called Candytopia that is self-explanatory and another named Slime City that is less so.
If You Build it They Will Immerse
There’s even an entire building devoted to immersive retailing that has just opened called Illuminarium. With the pedigree of noted designer David Rockwell’s involvement, it is a 26,000 square-foot “digital spectacle” that bills itself as “an entirely new type of collective experience (of) reprogrammable, immersive theaters that surround visitors in a sensory space of sight, sound, and scale.” It opened with the “Wild: A Safari Experience,” with its next show in 2022 slated to be “Spacewalk.” And yes, there is a gift shop and food and beverage service. The “Standard Experience” goes for $35 but why stop there: the “All-Inclusive Experience” is $50 and includes a voucher at the café.
Dedicated venues for immersive retailing are showing up in many cities from Area 15 in Las Vegas to Mana in Miami. Many trace their origin to Meow Wolf, a Santa Fe, NM operation that bills itself as “an arts production company that creates immersive, multimedia experiences that transport audiences of all ages into fantastic realms.” The company behind Meow Wolf just raised $158 million in funding, which, if not unicorn status, ain’t chump change either.
Rockwell, in talking about Illuminarium, said “I think there’s a deep human need for places that take you out of yourself as a group. It’s creating a new kind of platform for narrative and storytelling.” Alan Greenberg, a former Esquire publisher who is the driving force behind Illuminarium, told Fast Company magazine, these new kinds of immersive venues represent a “desire by consumers to…do things they’d never had the opportunity to do before.”
Make no mistake about it: All of these ventures represent an entirely new avenue for the retail business and should not be grouped in with exhibitions, theater presentations, museums or events. These are stores, selling a product: It’s just that the main product is an experience not a simple piece of merchandise.
And you thought the retail industry had experienced everything?