Last year I was at the opening day of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, Orlando. As one might expect, the buildings, the sets, everything was designed to reflect the sets used in the movies with a level of detail that defies description. But the real genius of the experience doesn’t set in until you actually begin to interact with the various themed spaces. It all begins when you enter the wand shop. After waiting in line for a very, very long time, 15 or so people are ushered into a small mock shop and the scene from the original movie is acted out word for word with a member of the shopping audience. Ollivander’s Wand Shop springs to life. You’re then ushered through a door into the retail space, crowded with delighted fans happily handing over a small fortune to buy the same products they can buy online for a fraction of the price.
The store is indicative of a theater. Not only is the environment an exact duplicate of the movie set, but the interactions themselves draw the buyer directly into the story line. By the time one leaves The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, loaded down with bags of magical souvenirs, they’re already making plans for the next visit. And this is the sort of reaction every retailer wants.
Even without the direct associations with the movies the retail space would still conform to some very basic principles. Namely, escape, fantasy, and inclusion in a bounded group (“real” Harry Potter fans). The total experience speaks to cultural and psychological archetypes.
So why does any of this matter? The simple reason is that it will increase revenue for a retailer that can be sustained in a n ever-changing market. Retailer shops are places of entertainment, they are places to teach social values, they are places to construct the notion of family, etc. In other words, multi-channel complexity and media fragmentation increases need for brand consistency like never before. What cultural and symbolic elements can be built into the space to reflect context and the reasons people are shopping in a venue. Are they there to entertain themselves or their kids? Are they seeking escape to a temporary oasis from an otherwise busy mall? Are they looking to the retail space as an extension of the brand they are shopping for and/or using as a means of personal expression? People are more satisfied by unique experiences than they are by commoditized objects. Because they are more complex and speak to a range of cultural norms and emotions, experiences are harder to compare, but easier to differentiate.