Stores as Experiences: Back to the Future

The Atlantic: “The funny thing about stores-as-experiences is that, even as a notion that is shaping retail’s future, it also represents a return to its past.” Tracey Deutsch, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, comments: “Apple might be interested to know that the first post-WWII malls often used similar rhetoric about public squares. Victor Gruen, who designed Southdale (the first indoor mall) and who really created the look for many of these shopping centers, saw himself as creating new public space.” Gruen based his vision on “the ancient Greek Agora.”

“In the 19th century, the creators of early department stores, too, were attuned to the experiences of shoppers, particularly the middle- and upper-class women they catered to. Deutsch notes that these stores had cafes and tea rooms in which customers could rest, along with plenty of attendants to help carry any purchases.”

“The journalist and historian Marc Levinson offered another historical precedent for experiential retail … the Great American Tea Company, which set up a coffee-roasting plant in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in 1865, aimed to dazzle people walking by with its sights and smells. (Levinson says the idea was inspired by the spectacle of P.T. Barnum’s nearby American Museum, which displayed live animals and freak shows.) Levinson comments: “A few years later, the company … played up its supposed connection with Chinese tea growers by painting its stores in vermillion and gold leaf, adding Chinese wall hangings and oriental lanterns, and turning the cashier’s station into a pagoda. Customers were meant to experience a bit of China as they bought their tea.”

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