From Area 51 to Showfields

The term “retailtainment” was coined by George Ritzer as far back as 1989, and “retail theatre” by Joseph Pine II and James H Gilmore in their seminal The Experience Economy, published in 1999. In the past decade, progressive malls the world over have sprouted things for customers to do besides simply shopping – water parks, ski slopes, aquariums and the like – but it’s only recently that retailers have latched onto things to see as an experience.

A couple of weeks ago it was announced in The Guardian that in November the venerable British department store Selfridges will be opening a three-screen cinema within its Oxford Street store, making it probably the first department store in the world to install a permanent cinema. It will operate year-round after the store’s retail trading hours, and screen a mix of blockbusters and independent films.

Beauty and the Bard

This isn’t the first time Selfridges has taken the term retail theatre literally. In 2016, it ran what it claimed to be the world’s first theatre production in a department store, a five-week pop-up theatre run of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The run,  coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, was part of their Shakespeare Refashioned campaign which fused fashion and drama. The production, for which Selfridges charged £20 a ticket, featured prerecorded “digital cameos” from actors Simon Callow and Meera Syal projected into the space as well as live actors. 

On a lighter note, in 2017, Selfridges ran potato-peeling workshops, ostensibly to relieve stress, as part of an installation celebrating the home.

In Canada, Montreal’s world-famous Cirque du Soleil will commence in early 2020 the retail rollout of its family fun entertainment centre Creactive – a bit of word play with “creative” and “active”. The first retail location will be at the Vaughan Mills megamall in Toronto, although it’s had success with the concept in resorts in the Dominican Republic and France. Creactive fun centre visitors will not only be able to watch the show but also participate in some of its activities. Cirque du Soleil plans to roll out the Creactive concept across North America and then globally.

Meow Wolf’s secret project

Also in early 2020, the Area15 experiential retail, events, entertainment and art complex is set to open in Las Vegas. Besides the usual mix of retail tenants, an ice-cream parlour, a gift shop and a food court, Area 15 is being billed as something fresh and exciting – an “immersive bazaar,” an “experiential retail and entertainment complex,” a place where “artists are front and centre,” The New York Times reports.

Area15 will also host events. Developer Winston Fisher last May shared some of the possibilities with the Times: “Deep house, EDM, drone racing, TED Talks, a barbecue competition.”

A large section of Area15 will be operated by experiential art collective Meow Wolf for a project blending art and retail, the details of which are being kept secret. Meow Wolf, until recently a ragtag artists collective barely known outside their hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico, has become a big deal, with some calling them the Disney of the 21st Century. The collective has broken ground on a US$60 million flagship project in Denver that will have more art-exhibit space than the Guggenheim and signed on to build a three-story, 75,000sqf permanent installation in Washington, the Times reports. 

In the meantime, in a similar vein and perhaps taking retail theatre to its fullest commercial conclusion, Showfields in New York has taken up theatre in a big way, finishing just a few weeks ago an extended run of its “show” experience. The company billed the event as “evolving into the next phase of bricks-and-mortar, taking customers on a journey that engages all their senses” and an “experience of magical realism that merges performance art with retail”.

The through-the-looking-glass House of Showfields experience began as a Book of the Month bookcase revealed itself as a secret door leading to a slide, which customers could ride down to find themselves on a stage with a faux forest and a bunch of “mad scientists” showcasing their latest “experiments” – exciting new beauty or homeware products that they pretend they have just concocted. 

The fictional Amelia Showfields character, the matron of the house, was played by several actors in different locations throughout the production. Other actors located in various rooms of the house, playing her employees, demonstrated various product experiments. The emphasis was on consumer product trial and interaction but conducted in immersive environments, in a storytelling manner. It was sampling on steroids, direct TV in-situ. 

Storytelling sells

Participants reported forgetting, or not realising, they were being sold to as they discovered new products and where they could fit them into their lives in an organic way, albeit through a theatrical lens.

The Lab store at the end of the House of Showfields experience saw total sales quadruple in the show’s July 20 opening weekend, in which 10,000 free online tickets were fully reserved in advance and store traffic increased 33 per cent. 

Participating company Nuria, which paid a subscription for its place in one of the immersive experience rooms and had a display concession “storefront” in The Lab store, saw its sales double on show weekends versus previous weekends and its product interactions increase from 50 per cent on a regular weekend to 100 per cent on a show weekend.

Founded by an ex-Warby Parker employee as a retail startup in December 2018 and put together in two months from its conception, Showfields is designed to provide D2C cut-through for smaller brands consumers may normally bypass on shelf, and which might not have the funds for traditional marketing campaigns to drive awareness. As well as designing and running each concession inside The Lab store, Showfields provides participating companies product interaction and sales data in exchange for a monthly subscription fee of US$6000 to $12,000 (Showfields does not take a sales commission).

The show experience is planned to evolve to add more brands which will encourage repeat consumer visits and discovery. A second retail store is planned.


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