‘Retail as theatre’

Imagine a more innocent time when checking out downtown department store window displays during the Christmas holiday season was actually considered a family tradition, right up there with roasting chestnuts on an open fire.
Times have changed. The tendency to dramatically dress up stores has been slowly eroding over the past decade or so, according to John Torella, senior retail consultant for J.C. Williams Group in Toronto. However, he says that he expects a rejuvenation in the tradition, if only to counteract the generic value propositions of discount retailers.
In general, the notions that the store is the brand and the store is the advertising are both gaining weight with marketers. Take it one step further and 'you're seeing a shift from advertising to windows and events.'

Imagine a more innocent time when checking out downtown department store window displays during the Christmas holiday season was actually considered a family tradition, right up there with roasting chestnuts on an open fire.

Times have changed. The tendency to dramatically dress up stores has been slowly eroding over the past decade or so, according to John Torella, senior retail consultant for J.C. Williams Group in Toronto. However, he says that he expects a rejuvenation in the tradition, if only to counteract the generic value propositions of discount retailers.

In general, the notions that the store is the brand and the store is the advertising are both gaining weight with marketers. Take it one step further and ‘you’re seeing a shift from advertising to windows and events,’ Torella says, pointing to Holt Renfrew’s event-happy schedule as a good example of the strategy. Other retailers too have come up with clever new ways to grab hold of larger themes – from Christmas to Thanksgiving to even the winter slush – and make them their own in an effort to give shopping the special occasion status it once had.

Holt’s began to focus more on events two years ago with its Millennium Event, according to Janet Eger, manager of public relations for Holt Renfrew Canada. Since then, the retailer’s 10 stores across the country have been holding special in-store events and galas regularly, tied into its seasons.

By hosting what are essentially in-store cocktail parties with an entertainment element, the upscale chain is able to surprise its discerning clientele, says Eger. ‘We have to delight our customers.’ Some of these evening events are simply gala parties. They often showcase a designer but there is no shopping element.

But others have a purpose beyond branding – to actually stimulate sales. Consider ‘Boy’s Night Out,’ a December evening set aside for a male-only cocktail party, during which guests are invited to shop. It is being repeated this year, according to Eger. ‘Girl’s Night In,’ meanwhile, was held last May for Mother’s Day and featured not only the opportunity to shop (glass of wine in hand), without wading through the masses, but also offered guests makeovers, massages and tarot card readings.

Special events involve many in-store elements, such as signage, displays, entertainment, food and a product mix that reflects the theme in question – a compelling combination that aims for what Eger calls ‘retail as theatre.’

The most dramatic example of this approach is the Viva Italia event which kicks off Sept. 10. The event, a partnership with the Italian consulate, will showcase contemporary Italian fashion, design, food and art, in both the merchandise – 75 new lines are being introduced into Holt’s for the 26-day promotion – and the in-store look, with packaging, displays, windows and signage.

Over 60 separate in-store events are planned for the promotion. For example, at Toronto’s Bloor Street store, Milanese puppet masters the Gianni and Cosetta Colla Theatre will be showcasing the Piazza Sempione fall/winter collection by dressing the troupe’s marionettes in tiny renditions of the design house’s lineup.

Next on Holt’s calendar is Christmas, a season which accounts for anywhere between 25% and 60% of overall retail sales in Canada. Holt’s will adopt the theme ‘Dream a Little Dream’ with a red, tangerine and white colour scheme, reflected on packaging, windows and posters in all stores across the country. And again this year, Holt’s will host a private shopping night for cardholders and special guests.

As Holt’s knows, good retail today is all about making connections with customers, says Joe Jackman, chair and chief creative officer at Toronto agency Perennial. Smart retailers can do this by tying into holidays, event and seasons in a way that goes beyond garlands and paper hearts to cement a unique relationship with their customers.

He points to Williams Sonoma’s strategy of bundling merchandise to sell seasonal ideas, rather than simply decorating a store in the same manner as other retailers. At Thanksgiving, a Williams Sonoma shop becomes a Thanksgiving experience, with demonstrations and relevant merchandise showcased in a way that tweaks the imaginations of its clientele.

Time-pressed customers who’ve ‘seen it all’ are keen on this approach to retailing during the holidays, he says. No one’s really looking for a new turkey platter – but surrounding it with the promise of a new experience makes it a more natural sell, he says. ‘The more you can pull disparate things together, bundle things up and make them more powerful, the more bang you’re going to get for your buck.’

That’s been the approach taken by The Body Shop. During the holiday season, customers can’t help but notice the colourful cellophane-wrapped gift bundles displayed throughout the store. ‘We try and transform the store into a gift centre,’ says Laine Ferguson, Body Shop Canada’s VP of retail marketing. Gifts are arranged by price, making it easy for a customer to choose something appropriate for anyone on their gift-giving list, she says. But it doesn’t stop there. The holiday theme – this year’s icon is to be a snowflake, for example – is reflected throughout the store, from windows and posters to staff aprons. ‘We try to create a festive atmosphere,’ she says.

In addition, this year The Body Shop is mailing out a holiday catalogue to the 45,000 members of its loyalty club, called Know Your Mind, Love Your Body. The catalogue includes an invitation to a special event day in late November where members can receive a discount on product. This encourages product trial – critical for a company in this industry, she says. ‘It’s all about getting the product onto a customer’s hands.’

Because The Body Shop keeps its traditional advertising to a minimum, using direct and the occasional cinema slide, in-store visuals become all that much more important – they become the brand. ‘We take our visuals very seriously, even if they’re irreverent,’ she says of the posters that highlight anything from environmentalism to holiday cheer.

And while it’s important for The Body Shop to draw attention to itself at the holidays – 40% of its annual sales are made over the eight-week period – it’s also careful not to go overboard with visual stimulation. Relatively small floor spaces mean that the company could easily make the mistake of overwhelming the customer – a tendency that can be resented during the hectic holiday season. Instead, it sticks to thought-provoking posters in its windows and in key display areas throughout the stores. This year, that attention to the small details even extended to redesigned aprons for sales associates that have front velcro panels that can be changed to reflect a season or promotion.

Another benefit to themed in-store marketing efforts that reflect a retailer’s personality is that they reinforce a customer’s decision that they’ve chosen the right place to shop for whatever season is being promoted, according to Jeffrey Gottheil, president and CD of Toronto-based J. Gottheil Marketing Communications. Be it Christmas or back-to-school, a retailer’s ultimate goal is to try to find something unique to offer for a specific holiday.

Nike, for example, focuses on its mandate – celebrating sport – for in-store activities that are tied in more to the sporting events calendar than the traditional holiday calendar. ‘What we really try to do is capitalize on sporting initiatives and find ways to bring those to life in-store,’ says Michelle Noble, manager of public affairs for Nike Canada. Although Nike will promote back-to-school, for example, it’s more likely to focus on basketball at that time of year since that’s when the season starts.

Because Nike has a much greater retail presence in the U.S. – right now Canada has only one Niketown store in Toronto, along with Nike Shop offshoots at several Athlete’s World stores – much of the in-store activity here is sourced from south of the border. Last winter, for example, the parent company ran an extensive ‘Enjoy the Weather’ promotion tied into its winterized product line. As well as TV and magazine, the campaign had a powerful in-store component. Nike Canada adopted some of the features, most uniquely the indoor-outdoor mats that sported the tagline. ‘The whole idea being that you wiped your feet when you came in after ‘enjoying’ the weather,’ says Noble.

In an ideal world, retailers would be able to measure the effectiveness of such in-store seasonal activity against TV, radio and newspaper. And if New York’s Point-Of-Purchase Advertising International (POPAI) is successful, eventually they will. Right now, the organization is still trying to work out the kinks of measuring any form of in-store advertising, but POPAI does have plenty of research that attests to the general power of in-store activity.

‘If you believe in amplifying your advertising messages at the point at which 70% of all buying decisions are made, themes and promotions and special occasions are critical points in time,’ says communications director Joseph Caspar. POPAI research indicates that combining different forms of point-of-purchase increases growth awareness anywhere from 14% to 27%. ‘So it does impact sales and reinforce messages,’ he says.

In fact, Caspar argues that the promotional impact of in-store holiday decorations and promotions might even be stronger than that of traditional media. ‘Not everyone looks at newspaper ads, but most of us go into stores,’ he says. ‘It’s your final influential argument.’