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Retailers ramp up the fun in their quest to attract customers

Updated: 2013-10-01T21:04:19Z

By JOYCE SMITH

The Kansas City Star

On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, Bass Pro Shops in Olathe was more amusement park, less retail store.

Children gathered around an 18,000-gallon freshwater aquarium, a few with their hands and faces pressed against the glass, as an employee fed the stock. The “big dog in the tank” — an alligator gar with a dual row of large teeth — quickly gulped down a fish, earning oohs and aahs from the children and some parents.

After the feeding, 7-year-old Jessie Mead of Olathe ran circles around the trout pool’s rock wall, stopping for a moment to pose in front of a stuffed brown bear, its teeth bared. About 7 feet tall, it towered over her. She just giggled in its arms.

Then it was off to paint brightly colored fish on her very own tackle box, a box she plans to take on her next fishing trip with her father, Dave Mead. For practice, Jessie also stopped at the catch-and-release tank to fish for one of the 40 large-mouth bass — up to 3 pounds in size — with a choice of either worm or lure. Children who caught a bass could have their picture taken before releasing it back into the tank.

“The kids just flip out when they come to this store,” said Dave Mead. “It’s a good store and fairly entertaining for kids — they can touch, feel and see.”

Best of all, the events — the aquarium feeding, the craft class, the catch-and-release tank, even some fishing classes for adults and children — are free.

Adding entertainment and experiences to the sales floor is known in the industry as retail-taiment and it’s growing as retailers try to slow the flow of Internet shopping and get customers to come back to brick-and-mortar stores. The experiences not only drive traffic, they keep customers in the stores longer. The positive memories they create can make consumers more loyal to the brand, experts say.

“We live in an experience economy. If you don’t offer experiences, you don’t have a destination,” said Randy White, chief executive officer of White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City company that works to create experiences at shopping centers internationally. “Starbucks turned coffee into an experience and people will pay a premium for it.”


Dave Mead of Olathe takes his children to Bass Pro Shops about every two weeks. And while the recent “2013 Fall Fishing Event,” held over two weekends in September, was more about the free experiences and family bonding, he also was checking out ear protectors for an upcoming deer hunting trip with Jessie. While she played at the trout pool, he shared fish stories with a store employee.

Many stores are still sticking with the traditional shopping experience: They put the merchandise on the floor, the consumer comes in to buy.

But those stores could be left behind.

“Just another sale is just another sale, but an invitation to an experience is an opportunity to connect on a deeper level,” said Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a New York market research and consulting firm. “American Girl surrounds you with the story; it just invites you into the world. We’re more excited about the shopping experience.”

The experiences can be as varied as the retailers.

American Girl’s events include free crafts, scavenger hunts and prizes. Victoria’s Secret recently put on a free private party with DJs, free merchandise and treats, along with special discounts, at its Oak Park Mall store. Williams-Sonoma in Leawood offers free technique classes and cooking demonstrations and recently a tour at one of its vendors, an area winery. The locally owned Rimann Liquors in Lenexa and Prairie Village bring in vendors for free weekly wine and beer tastings.

Academy Sports + Outdoors in Overland Park has a golf simulator and indoor archery lane. The Lego Store in Oak Park Mall holds free monthly mini model builds. Scheels — which likens its stores to Disneyland — will have an indoor Ferris wheel and other attractions at its Overland Park store, scheduled to open in mid-2015.

Throughout October, J. Hathaway Shoe Boutique in Leawood’s Park Place will give customers a single shoe to take home and decorate for an art competition to be held in early December.

“I do trunk shoes all the time, new designers coming in to showcase their new styles — shoes, jewelry, clothing,” said owner Jill Hathaway. “It’s live, up close and personal. It’s all about touching and feeling the products and meeting the designers. They continue to come back to me because I do these types of events.”

Corlett of WSL Strategic Retail cautioned retailers to make certain they reach out to every customer who deserves an invitation. Leaving a valued customer off the party list can be like not inviting your best friend to your birthday party.

“How do you make these events happen successfully? It’s mining the data,” Corlett said. “If you fan them on Facebook and you have a frequent shopper card, then you should be invited to a local event. Don’t exclude me because you haven’t done your homework.”


Here’s a look at recent Johnson County retail-taiment events and some more coming up.

Williams-Sonoma

On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, about a dozen amateur chefs gathered around tiny tables stocked with a glass bowl of raw carrots and several 8-inch keenly sharpened knives. Tracy Miller’s “Get Ready, Get Steady — Chop” class at Leawood’s Williams-Sonoma store was about to start.

Within minutes the students were learning how to use those big blades to make delicate basil ribbons. Next up, a way to dice onions so quickly the “students” hardly have time for their eyes to water.

“I hate cutting onions. They make me cry like nobody’s business,” Miller said. “If you are cutting something round, cut part of it off so it gives you a flat surface.”

A couple of students had brought their own knives, whipping them out of their big handbags as casually as if they were whipping out a fountain pen. They compared their brands to the ones Williams-Sonoma had provided.

After the hour-long class, Matt Horned of Overland Park was so taken with the Williams-Sonoma knives he purchased one to use for that night’s stir fry dinner, along with other items, including a knife sharpener. He also stopped to take in a stir fry cooking demonstration — chicken and broccoli over rice — that customers could then sample.

Several students from the technique class also purchased cutting boards, including one woman who also signed up for about a dozen upcoming cooking demonstrations — Breakfast for Dinner, Pressure Cooking, Cooking with Kids, Halloween Treats, Hands Off Cooking — joking that she had to find a husband somehow.

“We want to foster a relationship.” said Kati Odom, general manager of the Williams-Sonoma store in Leawood. “We’re not just a place to make a purchase. We are a place to educate customers before they make a purchase and after. Like our Vitamix class showing them how to make salads, smoothies, desserts and soup.”

Coming up at Williams-Sonoma’s Town Center Plaza store in Leawood: November technique classes include ones focusing on Thanksgiving: A Bird to Brag About (how to prepare a juicy turkey); Choose Your Sides (how to prepare classic Thanksgiving sides plus some new ones), and Pie, Pie and More Pie, Please (simple steps for preparing crusts and flavorful fillings).

American Girl

A scavenger hunt wasn’t on the Savage family’s vacation itinerary.

But there they were, scouring the American Girl store in Overland Park’s Oak Park Mall. Claire, 5, and little sister, Marissa, 3, needed to find six questions to complete the sheet to win a prize.

Elizabeth Savage of Omaha would squat down to her daughters’ level, coaxing their answers: “You don’t like black. But what do you like that is black?”

Claire seriously considered the question, brow furrowed in thought.

“I like the roof,” she said, getting a chuckle from her mom.

Dad James Savage was already holding one purchase, an American Girl Bitty Baby doll for Claire.

As the sisters searched, they also took note of the American Girl goodies throughout the store — a guitar in the arms of one doll, shiny pumps on another.

“I like high heels,” Claire said, a bit wistfully.

Along with pondering their favorite and least favorite colors, they drew a picture in a square and gave the picture a title.

Jadyn Marx, 8, of Overland Park, and her little sister, Riley, 4, joined the search while Paityn, 11/2, sat in her stroller playing with her American Girl Westie puppy doll called Coconut.

Riley wanted her own American Girl doll like her big sister Samantha, 10, who was at dance class. But a more frugal Riley ruled when it came to accessories, like the $150 American Girl baby grand piano.

“These little things cost so much,” she said.

Coming up at American Girl in October: Free craft classes to create an acorn pouch out of felt and ribbon to take home. Sessions are currently scheduled for 2 to 4 p.m. Oct. 6; from 4 to 6 p.m. Oct. 14; and from 2 to 4 p.m. Oct. 20.

Paper pumpkin craft events are scheduled for 2 to 4 p.m. Oct. 13 and Oct. 27.

Victoria’s Secret

It was a Sunday night at Oak Park Mall just before most stores were closing for the evening.

But on this night Victoria’s Secret employees pulled down the front doors with a decided clank 30 minutes early. Customers were warned with a signpost out in front: We will close today at 5:30 p.m. for a private event.

Three young women already were holding front places in line. They sat on the cool tile floor, passing the time eating waffle ice cream cones, reading messages on their cell phones, and checking out other shoppers hurrying to leave the mall for the day.

By 6 p.m. more than 40 women were lined up along the storefronts behind them and other mall customers did a double-take wondering what’s going on. One man turns to see what the draw is.

“Panties,” he says, a little too loudly, catching himself when others turn to look.

A few minutes after 6 — by one customer’s anxious account — store employees opened the door and the Victoria’s Secret “angels” were welcomed inside.

“We do it all for you. You come back again and again and we appreciate you all so much,” a store employee said over a microphone and a DJ started the music.

The two-hour “Ready for your Closeup?” exclusive event was on, kicking off the new Closeup push-up bra. Customers were handed a raffle ticket and prizes were announced every 15 minutes. There were free mini bottles of water with the Victoria’s Secret logo and its models featured on the label and free boxes of brightly colored candy.

Victoria’s Secret credit card holders got triple points for every purchase and special discounts — $25 off a $100 purchase, $50 off a $200 purchase, or $75 off a $300 purchase. They also would receive a free Angel tote with a $75 purchase. Customers and prospective customers — who could RSVP on Oak Park Mall’s website and bring a guest — got a sneak peek of the retailer’s new Closeup bra two days before the general public.

By the time the first prize was drawn, more than 50 women — and a few men — had spread out in the store, filling up their Victoria’s Secret shopping bags as if it was a last minute rush before Christmas Eve.

“That’s the opportunity of events,” said Corlett of WSL Strategic Retail. “It’s not just another sale, but an invitation to an experience and an opportunity to connect on another level.”

To reach Joyce Smith, call 816-234-4692 or send email to jsmith@kcstar.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter at JoyceKC

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