A Personal Retail Theatre Encounter

When I left Toronto last month it was -9C (think lock de-icing cold), but when I got off the plane in Santiago it was 32C (think shorts and flip-flops). So what else would I do on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Chile, but go shopping? I love shopping. I love picking up new ideas, watching the way consumers interact with the environment and figuring out why people buy what they buy.

So, after a brief unpack I headed to the zona artesenal Los Domenicos. It was an easy trip on the very reliable Santiago metro system.

The first thing that struck me was that I knew exactly where I was. How often have you found yourself in a grocery store or a department store and after quickly looking at the merchandise in front of you, you realize that you could be shopping anywhere? What’s worse is when you have to really look around to remind yourself what store you’re in. This is not an issue at Los Domenicos. The shopping zone is basically a recreation of a Chilean mountain village. There is a stream, an aviary, a bonsai garden and cats roaming everywhere. The shoppers are moving casually from stall to stall; it’s hard to move fast when its 32C, trust me. There was a harpist playing near an outdoor cantina and elsewhere a shopper gave impromptu performance on a mandolin in an instrument shop. I just basked in the environment.

The shopping experience made me think of any number of retail or category management conferences where the organizers trot out some industry thought leader or C-level executive to talk about the “retail theatre.” I must admit that in a conference setting I envisage a theatre company staging Titus Andronicus near the deli and I shudder inside. At Los Domenicos, retail theatre is real and tangible. First there was the buildings and ambiance. Second, there was the product mix of items made from alpaca or lapis lazuli. Then there was the staff. As often as not, the people selling the products also made them. I know this is not achievable in most retail environments, but the degree of product knowledge and engagement is achievable. On the way back to the hotel, sitting in the Metro surrounded by packages and parcels, I reflected on some of the things I learned -Chilean petro glyphs, indigenous weaving styles and spice combinations used in Chilean cuisine. I went shopping for one thing and came away with five purchases.

Then, I started to think about North American retail. My thoughts went to JCPenny. I happened to be in Florida when JCP initiated their rebranding and really liked their new logo. I was also immediately impressed by the quality and content of the new flyer. So I went to the store. The staff engaged with me soon after I entered and there was consistent quality in the merchandise. Also, the clearance racks were gone and in their place was clearly priced merchandise on a rack labeled best price. This brought me full circle as the shorts I wore at Los Domenicos this morning were on a Best Price rack at JCP a few weeks ago.Retail theatre takes many forms and it can help move us past the death spiral that is pure price competition.

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