As has been widely discussed, brick-and-mortar retail outlets are facing a crisis. Since 2008, over 12,000 physical stores have closed. And, just six weeks into 2019, retailers have announced 2,187 closings, up 23% compared to last year. No wonder people are calling it a Retail Apocalypse.”

In response, many retailers are resurrecting and improving upon an idea that’s been around for a long time; namely, the retail experience as entertainment, now called “retailtainment.”

Many of the earlier forms of in-store entertainment were aimed at pacifying kids. A store in a local mall, for example, might have a slide for the kids to play on as Mom and Dad did the serious work of shopping. Or entertainment was used to draw kids into an outlet selling children’s products; the Lego Store being a prime example. Disney, too, was a retailtainment forerunner with its in-store viewing stations. 

But in-store entertainment is now aimed at adults as well. Lululemon offers community yoga classes. Bass Pro Shops have an in-store bowling alleys. Home Depot provides weekend do-it-yourself workshops. 

What’s Driving All The Fun And Games?  

The catalyst for all this is the coming-of-age of digital commerce. As recently as a decade ago, digital was considered an adjunct, there to support the brand and the in-store experience. But in the intervening years, digital has grown up, and its role vis-a-vis brick-and-mortar is reversing. Increasingly, stores are there to support the digital experience, where more and more transactions actually occur. 

Quite simply, in so many areas, we no longer need stores to make purchases, or even to get an intimate look at what we’re buying. Everything from food to clothes to mattresses can now be purchased online. And virtual simulations can fit us for the right pair of pants or the perfect lip gloss right on-screen. 

As the central place to spend your money, the retail store is becoming a thing of the past. 

So What’s A Store To Do? 

Despite the changing shopping environment, the brick-and-mortar establishment still has a vital role to play.

While in-store will no longer be the predominant transactional center, a retail store can become a school, a testing ground, a theater, a playground.

As mentioned above, a number of brands are offering classes through their retail outlets. Along with yoga at Lululemon and hammering at Home Depot, The North Face offers athletic training and Williams Sonoma can teach you how to become the chef of your dreams.

A store is where you can also test out your prospective purchases in environments that can’t be simulated virtually. Eddie Bauer, for example, offers a walk-in freezer of sorts that lets you check out how jackets and other winter gear hold up in extreme conditions.

And there are all sorts of theatrical events that are being staged in stores, from movies to plays to concerts to lectures.

But perhaps most of important of all, the retail store can become the new public space, a community center where, in our increasingly atomized life, we can enjoy the simple pleasure of being in the presence of other flesh-and-blood human beings.

All of this, of course, will help a company’s bottom line. The retail store becomes an embodiment of the brand, a living advertisement that pulls the brand out from behind the digital screen into what we might still call “real life.” A company like Apple was quick to understand this. While only selling a fraction of iPhones in its Apple stores, for example, the company has nonetheless invested heavily in establishing a real-world presence that humanizes the brand, offers a beautiful showcase for its products, a campus for its computer classes, and overall makes Apple a part of the communities it serves.

 And Where Do Market Researchers Fit In?

Retail’s new role presents new questions we can help answer. For example, what are the right kind of activities or presentations that best serve the brand? Which of these lead to immediate sales and which serve a longer-term strategy? What mix of events should the company invest in? When should events be scheduled? How might we measure the relationship between the in-store entertainment experience and online sales? How can we best evaluate various options and configurations for in-store design and entertainment? How do these work with other promotional channels?

It’s a lot to think about. But we’re sure you’ll find it entertaining.

Check out “From Data To Meaning,” our online storytelling course for market researchers