Let the Show Begin

Retail theater is alive and well across New York selling stages
Posted January 20, 2020

While serving as the store manager at Marshall Fields, Harry Gordon Selfridge said, “Every day is show day in this establishment.” In 1895, in pursuit of the greatest show in retail, Selfridge hired legendary “display man” Arthur Frasier to create magic. Both understood the value of “retail theater”; together they recognized that retail is a showplace, and the merchandise offerings are the actors on the selling stage.

“We would dramatize our merchandise, really stage work. I derived more from theater than anything else,” Frasier said. And while their thespian-like instincts paid large dividends back in the day, it’s the visionary retailer of today that recognizes that the show must go on.

Today’s selling stages (whether online or in-store) pulsate with technologies that would have been considered science fiction in Selfridge’s day, and in fact, just a few short years ago. And while some struggle with the realities between their online and in-store presence, they must understand that it’s technology that will connect the two; mobile is the new storefront.

Experiencing a brand’s website should be akin to walking through their store; both being a celebration and immersion into the brand. Technology will bring them back; while many stores are being shuttered, losing market share by forcing customers to travel farther, others such as Target, are employing the power of technology to analyze location data and strategically position new small-format stores in highly populated and trafficked areas.

Technology is also being used to define the purchasing experience; communicating product information and eliminating points of friction such as long lines and cash wrap desks, as transactions can be completed in different parts of the store or online. Strategically positioned digital screens entice while communicating quality brand messages and product information. And while digital has, in some regard, become the first touchpoint of a brand, today’s retail leaders understand that the physical store is the most important touchpoint. And they know that design matters. Accordingly, great store design has become a priority at physical retail. And while retailers all over the world scramble to stay ahead of the technology curve, they must not lose sight of Selfridge’s legacy and his penchant for showmanship.

In the days leading up to NRF’s (Washington, D.C.) annual “Big” Show, I was asked to guide a group of international retailers through the exciting network of New York retail establishments. Our tour covered everything from FAO Schwarz to Showfields, which bills itself as “the most interesting store in the world.”

What stood out to me and my fellow retail explorers was that the most compelling stores communicated the essence of the brand by providing customers with a well-choreographed stage show. The star of the show, of course, was the brand, and the supporting actors were the thoroughly trained and loyal brand ambassadors, the store associates. We were all impressed by the knowledge and dedication demonstrated by the employees at FAO Schwarz, Adidas, Nike, Allbirds, and L’Occitane, among others. All had obviously received extensive training, and all had a thorough understanding of company history and heritage; all were enthusiastic in their roles as communicators of the brand. Additionally, as more and more retailers begin to exhibit empathy for their customers, it’s just as important to exhibit empathy for store associates. This makes for happy brand advocates.

At FAO Schwarz, it’s clear that the overarching goal is to provide an experiential journey through an environment filled with theatrical employees in the key role as actors. All enhanced the in-store experience by engaging the customer and interacting with them as they communicated the nuances and the personality of the brand. Some flew boomerangs across the selling floor to the delight of visitors, while others posed for photographs dressed as toy soldiers. Then there were those that instructed happy customers to dance across the instantly recognizable giant piano, made famous by the one featured in the 1988 Tom Hanks’ movie “Big.” All of the theatrics and activities were framed by the store’s iconic watchtower and 27-foot-tall rocket ship commandeered by plush teddy bear astronauts.

At Showfields, retail spins off in a new direction, as online brands are taken offline in a four-story, 14,000-square-foot brick-and-mortar environment. Here, too, theatrics set the tone as well-trained associates dazzle customers with their knowledge and showmanship. Secret doors lead to hidden slides that take customers from one floor to the next, as art and demonstrations appear at every turn and around every corner. Showfields makes it clear that “retail theater” is back and better than ever before.

A curated strategy of integrated technology married to showmanship – theater – and experiential retail, will keep the footlights shining on the great stages that serve the wants, needs, and desires of customers as they once again yearn for seats in retail theaters across the country.

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.