Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Retailisation Series #3: The Cultural Utopia

How retailers go from selling goods to selling culture

The Retailisation Series will spotlight how digital and architectural experiences are causing a shift in how brands, retailers, and shoppers interact. Inspired by the forward-thinking ideas in the 2005 book Retailisation: The Here, There, and Everywhere of Retail by Francesca de Chatel and Robin Hunt, each post will cover three different roles for retail in 2012 and beyond. The first post in the series covered convenience retail, and the role played by digital, while the second post outlined the impact of the physical space on leisure shopping. This final post in the series, "The Cultural Utopia", will illustrate how a select group of retailers have moved towards selling not good and services, but cultural utopias.


There is a role that retailers play that goes beyond the functional, and beyond the leisure, and crosses the line into the realm of culture. This may sound surprising at first. Retailers are meant, by design, to sell us products and services—whether they are wrapped in entertaining, fantastical, self-fulfilling environments or not. What business do they have selling us anything other than that? We must remember that retailers are more than just physical and digital storefronts, they are brands, and brands have associations and attributes that often have higher-order, cultural significance.

The best example of this, of course, is Disney. With Disneyland, Walt Disney was the first to combine the goals of the retailer—getting you and keeping you in the world of consumption—with the goals of the brand—leaving you with a distinct feeling and positioning of the brand in your mind. With Disneyland, Chatel and Hunt argue, “He was presenting a new idea, the concept for an entirely new type of amusement park. He had consciously left out the traditional rides and country-fair type attractions, striving to create a space that would appeal to visitors in a more fundamental way by evoking, or even inventing, an idea of America that existed only in the collective memory.”

And so, the Disney brand’s point-of-view on the world, manifesting itself as a theme park experience, creates what is in essence a cultural utopia for its fans (really, customers) to live in and experience. “What we create is a Disney realism, sort of Utopian in nature, where we carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements,” says a Disney Imagineer in Sharon Zukin’s Landscapes of Power. “I don’t want the public to see the real world they live in while they’re in the park…I want them to feel they are in another world.” The world, though, is still the world of consumption, as Chatel and Hunt are quick to point out: “British sociologist Steven Miles sees trips to Disney environments as shopping experiences that reinforce an escapism in which ‘consumerism is all’ and which provides the consumer with narratives, making consumption and experience indistinguishable, so the actual act of consumption does not need to be acknowledged.”

Spectacle and Amazement

Another aspect of retailers that have sought out a broader culture role is that of spectacle and amazement. In order to leave customers with that lasting, memorable, and unique brand experience, they have to go big—as big as they possibly can. This spectacle can be see in full force in the megamalls that go beyond shopping to create an all-encompassing cultural experience. Think about the vastness of West Edmonton Mall, the Mall of America, and Bluewater in the UK. The authors quote American architect Eric Kuhne, who describes the design approach to Bluewater: “First and foremost, at Bluewater we had to build something that was functional. Then we added the leisure components. And then, most importantly for us, we added the cultural component.” They explain that “Kuhne believes families will not come here for shopping in the first place, they will come for the experience and a ‘cultural exchange.’”

In the realm of retail brands, we see this spectacle manifest itself in the form of giant, specially-designed flagship stores. Sometimes, these stores are designed not to be stores at all, but rather experiences that demonstrate what the brand means to people on a cultural level. “Conveying more coherent messages, brands are increasingly building flagship stores that offer entertainment but also translate a lifestyle vision and the ‘brand image’,” the authors explain. “These spaces take the concept of the shopping experience one step further, as their main aim is not to maximize sales but to ‘convert’ a maximum number of consumers to the brand. These spaces are instilled with a certain religious value.”

Nike and Sony offer two examples of massive flagship stores built more for their cultural impact than for their economic one. Niketown, “immerses the consumer deep into Nike’s Just Do It spirit. Everything in the space is geared towards the dynamism, energy, and competitive spirit that Nike represents.” Sony’s Wonder Tech Lab, on the other hand, is not even a store: it is purely aimed at entertaining and providing culture value to those who venture into it by demonstrating Sony’s latest innovations. The authors quote Sony exec Susan Sullivan, who explains that the goal of the Wonder Tech Lab is to “provide entertaining and educational experiences which lead to an understanding of communications, technology, and entertainment.”

Retailing a Theme Park Experience

Other than Disney, there is one retail brand that has gone beyond the traditional flagship store experience when it comes to making a cultural impact on its audience. That brand is Volkswagen. Located in the small town of Wolfsberg (near Germany’s capital, Berlin), Autostadt serves both as Volkswagen’s Headquarters and an amusement park dedicated to everything that the automotive brand stands for.

Featuring art, architecture, an IMAX cinema, flight simulators, pavilions dedicated to the many Volkswagen-owned brands, restauraunts, a five-star, five-diamond hotel, piazzas, bridges, lakes, kid’s playgrounds, grassy knolls, a museum, and two 120-feet high glass towers in which newly-built cars are stored, Autostadt is “a car theme park with almost no cars.”

As the authors write, its creators are clear that the experience that they’ve created is “not about cars.” It is, Chatel and Hunt write, “about ideas, images, and values. It is about creating experiences, engaging emotions, evoking memories and serving the customer with a smile.

Through our look at Retailisation, we’ve seen how the role of the retailer is shifting and changing in our busy and value-seeking lives. We want to be able to browse, shop for, and take home products as quickly and efficiently as possible, and digital and mobile—integrated with their physical brethren—allow us to do this. We also want to enjoy a time of leisure when we shop, to be entertained, and to perhaps even learn a little bit more about ourselves, and retail design is increasingly making this happen. Finally, we also want to experience brands and retailers in a context that goes beyond the traditional act of shopping, in spaces and places that offer us an enriching, branded, cultural experience.

With such a vast difference between functional, leisure, and cultural retail, one can’t help but wonder: what role will retailers play in our lives next?

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