Why The Future Of Retail Requires Imagination

Chris WrenAugust 12, 20194 min

We’ve written about experiences being the latest frontier in retail: How brand activations through pop-ups like the Taco Bell hotel in Palm Springs or the Cheeto’s gourmet restaurant in New York offer memorable ways to extend the brand story; How Instagram-friendly destinations like the Museum of Ice Cream offer unique opportunities for brand partnerships; How China’s virtual showrooms bring back memories of childhood.

Get ready, because the department store of the future will win by converting actors to salespeople. Or at least that’s what Katharine Schwab thinks in her FastCompany article reviewing New York’s latest experiential store, Showfields. According to their website, “Showfields is a revolutionary retail concept built to engage and inspire your sense of discovery through revolving experiences with the brands and communities shaping our future. We partner with brands to create a stage for immersive storytelling and unlock new offline channels for growth.”

The experience, as Ms. Schwab describes, starts out in the Instagram-esque way you might expect; visitors enter the “House of Showfield” by plunging down a black and white striped playground-like slide, but that’s where the expectation starts to give way to something better.

Ms. Schwab continues, “Before I can overthink it too much, I swing myself onto the slide and skid all the way to the bottom. Then, I am suddenly in the midst of a faux forest, with strategically placed neon lights illuminating a room dotted with the trunks of real-looking birch trees. Moss hangs down from the ceiling. A woman dressed in all white with lab glasses pulls me over to sit on a log. She tells me she’s been working on a new formula. She dabs a bit of lotion onto the back of my hand and proceeds to tell me how it’s all-natural, plant-based, and vegan.”

Unlike some experiential retail experiences that seem like a “fun house with the added annoyance of people hawking products,” Showfields a completely new form of retail, with actors who play characters that tell the stories of direct-to-consumer brands in a way that can make shopping fun again. The entire stage is meant to represent the house of Amelia Showfields, a fictious character who is the matron of the house, with all the other characters working for her.

“The Most Interesting Store In The World”

Wandering between rooms in this “house” treats visitors to a variety of experiences. “An area meant to resemble a study has a wall full of $595 digital frames by the company Meural, and you can change the images by swiping your hand in front of the frame. Not everything is a sales mechanism: Showfields also asked bona fide artists to help design the installations. For instance, one wall is covered by video screens that show surveillance footage from different rooms in the house by the artist John Power.”

There are bathrooms, studies, libraries, all built around products and serve as the backdrop to bring the story to life. “The Lab” which is a more traditional store at the end of the experience saw 4x greater sales during the opening weekend, and July’s 10,000 free tickets sold out before the show even started. The experience has been extended through September 3rd.

Here’s the thing about retail these days: Online platforms have made it so much easier to find what you want and have it delivered with the minimal human interaction required. The serendipity is absent. And that’s what Showfields is trying to deliver. Katie Hunt, the brand’s chief revenue officer says, “It is of course about convenience for both the consumer and the brands, but it’s also bringing back that magic of what am I gonna find? What am I gonna see? I’ve never heard of this before.”

Brittany Brave, an actress who plays Amelia Showfields in another installation sums up the impact in the best way. “It’s a very organic way for people to experience a product as opposed to just reading copy or being hit with a one-way advertisement. This is one way that they can actually see in real time if it’s a product that really works in your life, and they see it through a lens of theater.”

This idea of seeing products “through the lens of” opens up room for a great deal of imagination in terms of how you can allow customers to experience your brand. Showfields is a great example because, as one of the founders says, once you commit to going down a slide, you’ve made a commitment to try something new.

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