More bricks-and-mortar retailers offer customers real experiences

The Kansas City StarDecember 10, 2012 

BIZ RETAIL-ENTERTAINMENT 2 KC

The Microsoft Store in the Oak Park Mall in Kansas City, Mo., has product advisers to help customers gain hands-on experience. Last month, Drew Ramsey, left, showed off the Windows Phone to Megan Kahler. More bricks-and-mortar stores are adding interactive experiences.

FRED BLOCHER — MCT

Just putting a price on a product and sticking it on a shelf is so old school.

And with consumers buying more each year online, brick-and-mortar retailers are working harder to add entertainment to their mix — from American Girl scavenger hunts to the Art of Shaving's product demonstrations.

These experiences are something consumers can't get from online shopping, so they drive traffic to the stores and keep customers there longer. They also build brand loyalty.

"You can buy a product just about everywhere. They are trying to add a different element so it is not just about the product," said Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer of WSL/Strategic Retail, retail strategists and futurists based in New York. "They are giving people a reason to play — like Converse, where you can customize your sneaker — making it worth it to go into the store. A sense of place and a place to stay."

Retailers have been using entertainment to attract shoppers for years, from mall carousels to the Mall of America's whole amusement park. But with advances in technology and growing pressure from online competition, more retailers are adding interactive attractions inside their stores.

Build-A-Bear Workshop was one of the innovators in "experiential" mall retailing 15 years ago, having children choose and name their bears — and later other animals — as the huggable toys were put together and stuffed.

Now it is starting to roll out new designs with several new interactive experiences, including putting the stuffed animals at children's height so they can touch and play with them, and digital screens where children can add more personalized sounds and music to their stuffed toys. Five Build-A-Bear stores have been converted to the new concept, and one new store has opened.

Interactive experiences are a key way American Girl sets its 14 stores apart from other toy stores.

"In terms of the retail environment, it's what we've come to be known for," said Stephanie Spanos, spokeswoman for American Girl.

The American Girl events — some free, others with a fee — create memories and build brand loyalties with its young customers.

On Jan. 1, for instance, it will have interactive events to introduce its 2013 Girl of the Year doll, the name a closely guarded secret until it is announced in late December.

Girls will get to go on a scavenger hunt through the store, visiting an area for a free craft and getting a gift to take home.

Some consumers might be trying Microsoft products for the very first time when they walk into one of its 60 stores. But Microsoft employees are on hand to make the introductions to new products, let them try them out on site and help them work through any technical issues.

"Technology can be very intimidating for some people, so we try to tear down those barriers," said Microsoft spokesman Lief Knutson. "When they leave and realize they've made the right decision, that builds a lot of repeat business."

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