The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

All The World’s A Stage

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Excite the mind, and the hand will reach for the pocket – Harry Gordon Selfridge

Surely the concept of ‘retail theater’ is not new, but with splashy Mad Money headlines from the incoming CEO of Macy’s, Tony Spring, this past week – Retail is theater. So, Bloomingdales is our growth vehicle. It’s all about the delivery of a better experience for the customerI was galvanized to look into the idea more deeply.

In this article, we will define what retail theater is – generally, as I’m not sure there is a singular definition, and, the concept has evolved. We will relate it to experiential retailing. We will also look at modern-day exemplars of retail theater.

What Is Retail Theater?

According to Baron et al, 2001, in Retail Theater The “Intended Effect” of the Performance, retail theater is generally presented as a “fun” experience involving spectacle and excitement. It may involve several intended effects. Retailers want consumers to interact physically with their merchandise to stimulate a variety of behavioral responses leading to purchase. Others try to influence the consumers’ cognitive and affective and emotive responses more directly. Take Williams Sonoma as an example. The retailer offers in-store and online cooking classes using products and gadgets one can buy at Williams Sonoma, some, exclusively. Typically, these events have fees, and if you have been to any of the sessions, it is hard to leave empty-handed.

A friend and colleague Ignaz Gorischek, former Head of Design for Neiman Marcus, and current owner of IMG Creative, put a current twist on this definition – “I think retail theater has turned into a personal expression and branding with the advent of social media. It is still theatrical, but the individual is the star and the word ‘theater’ has become ‘stage’ – the individual has become the ‘show’ and the focus.”         

Theater, stage, experience, experiential – what is the difference?

Retail theater and experiential retailing are related. Per Ignaz, “Retail theater can mean the physical environment, but it should be unique, dynamic and original – think of a stage set, where ‘I’ am the star. Experiential retailing can mean: how I interact with the physical environment, and what I can control, as an example, the use of technology and social media.” Take as an example the leading-edge collaboration between Burberry and Tencent’s WeChat in Shenzhen, China, which involved the innovative use of technology and social media. As described by Burberry senior vice president of digital, Mark Morris, “The tech we use in the store is intended to provide a seamless journey that augments customers’ online and in-store life. Therefore, this is not a tech store, but a beautiful luxury store augmented by technology.”

Now that we have defined what retail theater is and related it to experiential retailing, let’s look at who is doing it well.

Modern-Day Exemplars

WOW Concept Store, Madrid

Barcelona-based architectural firm, External Reference, designed the WOW concept store in Central Madrid “as a stage for a continually evolving performance, where shoppers discover products through an immersive, multisensory retail experience, that varies from floor-to-floor, and changes over time”.

Says External Reference’s founder: “Having digital layers animating the space engages people, and it produces social media impacts.”

Elements in the 60,000 square foot concept store evolve and revolve, like stage performances, with the backdrop as a set, designed to excite and engage, with heavy use of 3D printing to support frequent change, and custom sets and experiences.

The Carousel @Bloomingdale’s – BIG BROWN BAZAAR Pop-Up – NYC

The current pop-up at Bloomie’s celebrates the 50th birthday of the iconic Bloomie’s Big Brown Bag. A pop-up with a past. The curated shop is filled with exclusive styles inspired by the first ‘It’ shopping bag, and its hometown of NYC. Frequent Bloomingdale’s pop-ups, and exclusive merchandise keep regulars coming back to see what’s next, what’s new. The fresh assortment and excitement – theoretically – attract new customers. Bloomie’s also offers a fun, mobile interface to complement the curated, in-store experience; technology working hand-in-hand with the store.

Showfields – Lifestyle Discovery Store, Brooklyn

Retail meets art gallery, Showfields opened in 2018, in NOHO, New York City (now in multiple locations), with the tagline: the most ‘interesting store in the world’. Per Showfields, the brand is a curation of mission-driven products, art and events that can be found “IRL” for the first time, with a mission to stimulate partners, artists and customers. Showfields celebrates retail and commerce, at the intersection of art, exclusivity and engagement. It is a 15,000 square-foot, next-generation department store, with an immersive ‘theater-like’ experience.

Samsung 837 Flagship, NYC

Built on the assumption that the world truly does not need another retail establishment, Samsung remade, rethought and rebuilt the concept of ‘store’, from the ground up. Samsung 837 is both memorable and immersive, and offers a ‘technology showcase and playground’. And in this case, the ‘theater’ is literal. The store includes an auditorium with a gigantic digital screen (100-55” visual displays), used to highlight cultural events, screen films and display nearby selfies. A virtual reality gallery is also on-site to display technology-based art installations.

AREA15, Las Vegas

AREA15 is a 200,000 square-foot retail and entertainment complex located near the Las Vegas Strip. It features curated retail, experiential entertainment, art installations, even a supermarket. The company’s CEO, Winston Fisher, developed the structure with more than retail and entertainment in mind, more like a philosophy; he says, “It’s not just about creating a building, but a community, a space that has energy.” While AREA15 is free to enter, you pay for the attractions you attend. The grocery – Omega Mart, owned by Meow Wolf, is a 52,000 square foot “supermarket store experience,”, a grocery store with a psychedelic twist and otherworldly portals behind grocery shelves and cases. Expect all your senses to be put into overdrive.  

To summarize, retail theater is nothing new, the term has been around for some time, but what is happening in the theater is changing, from the outward – the theater, to the inward – the stage and the self. From you to me. Middling department stores – the JCPenney’s of the world and old-fashioned staid retail just don’t cut it anymore. I provided a handful of exemplars of those doing it well, today, and there are many examples that surround and abound. I think the question for me at least is, this ‘new retail’ is so ‘out there’, what might be next?


Editor’s Note: Tracy De Cicco is the CEO of global technology sales consultancy, She has 20 years’ experience in retail tech. She has worked with many of the Fortune 10 global retailers and specializes in C-Level engagement and resonant, effective sales messaging. She can be reached at

Newsletter Articles October 13, 2023
  • Guest ContributorsTracy De Cicco, CEO of Konposit
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