From the December 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

No longer charmed by enticements like extended hours, easy credit and no-questions-asked returns, shoppers are demanding more from their retailers these days. Conditioned to expect excitement by big-bang movies, computer games and music videos, consumers crave intense, interactive, exciting shopping experiences.

Retailers call this hot new trend "entertailing," blending entertainment with tried-and-true retail merchandising techniques.

Don't confuse this idea with the "theme" retail concept that's lost steam in recent months. Restaurants and stores built around a particular theme (such as the '50s, Hollywood or the rainforest) have seen sagging sales of late. Entertailing is simply about adding a little more zest and interactivity to your hair salon, surf shop or toy store to entice customers who would be going to one of these stores anyway to choose yours for the added excitement.

What's driving this trend of entertaining the buying public? "Americans are bored by shopping and by the sameness of merchandise," explains Howard L. Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a national retail consulting firm in New York City. "They're crying out for something different. They want a bigger thrill."

In addition, consumers have innumerable options these days: Super discount stores, mail order catalogs and the Internet give them things many independent retailers can't--the world's biggest selection or the lowest prices in town. That's opened retailers' minds to entertailing.

"This trend is gigantic. If you're in retailing, you can't ignore it," says Davidowitz. "As an independent, you can't create unique merchandise and you can't outprice a mass discounter or specialty superstore. So what's left? Drawing people in by offering your product on a different stage. Make it more fun, more educational, more interactive."

Retailers jumping on the entertailing bandwagon are reaping quantifiable results. Studies by Marketing Developments Inc., an international retail consulting firm in Cincinnati, show that a well-conceived shopping experience boosts sales from 40 to 200 percent more than the typical specialty retailer, provided the product is right, in ample supply and competitively priced.

Not quite sure how to start jazzing up your store? Learn from entrepreneurs who have perfected entertailing techniques that attract customers and keep them spending in their stores.

If the Shoe Fits...

Just for Feet, a Birmingham, Alabama, athletic-shoe retailer, is walking all over its competition, thanks to its innovative approach to selling shoes. Sales from its chain of 84 superstores nationwide hit $500 million last year, a far cry from the $23 million the firm grossed when it went public in 1993, and even further from its first-year revenues of $200,000 in 1977.

Founder and CEO Harold Ruttenberg, 56, attributes Just for Feet's runaway success to its perfect blend of entertainment and retailing. "We take our cue from Walt Disney, a master at making people smile," says Ruttenberg. "We've created that same synergy at Just for Feet."

Ruttenberg has created that synergy by presenting each superstore as a giant playground for adults and kids alike. Stores feature an indoor basketball court, a wall of video screens, laser light shows, a hot dog restaurant and athletic event viewings.

"During Wimbledon, we invited the public to watch the matches on the big screen, and we served them doughnuts and coffee," says Ruttenberg. "That was 10 years ago. Now we have our own restaurants [in the stores]."

Ruttenberg's three-ring approach to selling athletic shoes is driven by a simple goal: Get shoppers to smile. "When they walk in, they're not happy. They're about to give you their money. But when they leave Just for Feet, they're smiling," he explains. "It's the total atmosphere that's important--music playing, basketballs being shot, the cash register ringing. It's just organized chaos, and I love it."

Don't have room for a basketball court in your store, much less the budget to build one? No problem. While high-profile accouterments suit some retailers, others are opting for concepts that work in low-profile, traditional retail environments. Entertailing isn't a totally developed concept, according to Stanley Eichelbaum, president of Marketing Developments Inc. "It's in transition and open to interpretation," he says. "Everyone is trying to find a way to do it that works for their business and their customers."

Food for Thought

HomeChef, a chain of eight cooking schools/kitchen stores in California, has found an entertailing strategy that works. Shoppers know that pots, pans and electric mixers are cheapest at the large discount retailers. But at HomeChef, buying them is much more fun.

Customers sip hot spiced cider and nibble on freshly baked biscotti as they shop or get answers to their cooking questions. At free one-hour cooking demonstrations, trained chefs show shoppers how to make perfect strawberry crepes at home. On any given day, founder and chairperson Judith Ets-Hokin, dressed in her chef's whites, walks through the stores to chat with customers and swap cooking experiences.

"We romance everything at HomeChef. You see it in the way we talk about buying a soufflé dish, selecting fresh herbs, putting together an intimate dinner party," says Ets-Hokin, who got her start 20 years ago in the kitchen of her San Francisco home, teaching friends how to cook simple, delicious meals. "We're not just selling merchandise; we're selling the cooking experience, which we believe should be pleasurable and memorable."

HomeChef's high-sensory sales approach is complemented by well-orchestrated marketing and customer service programs. Customer mailings announce merchandise specials, new products and an ever-changing lineup of cooking classes.

Sales associates must complete HomeChef's most popular offering: the 12-week Essential Cooking series. "We want them to be knowledgeable about food and talk in the same language as the people taking our cooking classes," explains Ets-Hokin. Likewise, chefs are handpicked for their ability to relate to HomeChef's market niche: working couples and moms who want to sharpen their cooking skills.

The company's biggest customer service day is Thanksgiving, when chefs and sales associates man toll-free phone lines to talk customers through the trials of cooking the perfect holiday turkey. "People need to cook," says Ets-Hokin, "so we want to help them make it fun, creative and delicious." And make no bones about it; last year, HomeChef made cooking fun, creative and delicious to the tune of more than $14 million in sales.

Hands On!

Encouraging shoppers to handle merchandise is an easy and highly effective way to involve them in what your store has to offer. At R/C Country Hobbies, a Sacramento, California, hobby store that sells remote-control planes and cars, model-building kits and other toys, customers can test a collector train on display or ask an employee to build a model so they can see and feel it. They can even fly a model airplane using a computer program that simulates the event.

"A customer can feel what it's like to turn the airplane, give it power and crash it. This way, the crash is cheaper," says Terrie Van Scyoc, co-owner of the store with her husband, Chet, both 37. The rationale behind the couple's hands-on customer policy: "This is something our biggest competitors, mail order catalogs, can't give them," says Terrie.

The Van Scyocs offer shoppers other interactive experiences mail order catalogs can't, such as firsthand advice from experienced R/C Country Hobbies employees on building or repairing model toys. Shoppers are invited to display their finished airplane and glider models from the store's rafters; the Van Scyocs then sell these toys on consignment. Other customers test their skills at yo-yo demonstrations staged by R/C Country Hobbies employees or race their miniracers on an 80-foot track at monthly exhibitions in the store's parking lot.

"Most of our customers are men. By nature, if they can see, feel and touch it, we're closer to getting the item sold," says Terrie. "A built-out model [on display] gives them the inspiration to buy a kit, take it home and make it themselves."

R/C Country Hobbies' hands-on marketing boosted revenues from $1 million in 1996 to $1.2 million in 1997. The Van Scyocs have also cultivated a particularly loyal customer following. When the couple moved its business from cramped quarters into a 2,600-square-foot building two years ago, many customers worked three 10-hour days to help renovate the building and move merchandise. Says Terrie, "We've developed lasting ties with many of our customers."

See What's So Special

At Newman Outfitters, a retail store that sells backpacking, camping, hiking and other outdoor equipment, shoppers are treated to a steady stream of special events. "We're doing many things to distinguish ourselves from other stores and enrich our customers' enjoyment of the outdoors," says Chris Newman, 46, co-owner with his brother, Gary, 50, of the Shaker Heights, Ohio, store.

Earlier this year, the Newmans joined the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in sponsoring a special viewing for customers and museum members of the Banff Mountain Film Festival, which presents the best outdoor films.

They hosted two slide-show presentations by Ed Viesturs, one of several climbers featured in "Everest," the first big-screen film about climbing Mount Everest. The standing-room-only shows persuaded the brothers to sponsor a third event, a slide-show presentation by Arcaceli Segarra, a female climber who is also in the popular film.

Special event sponsorships, says Chris, are affordable and easy to manage. The brothers' share of the Banff Mountain Film Festival sponsorship cost $2,000. Advertising costs were minimal; they promoted the event through store posters, small advertisements in a local sports newspaper and mailings to museum members.

"The payoff is hard to quantify, but we believe it's very good," says Gary. "We hear people talking about the shows and feel there's a buzz in our store as a result of these promotions."

Special events work just as well for other retailers. At Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, for example, owner Elaine Petrocelli, 58, offers writers' workshops that draw students and faculty from as far away as France and South America. Besides book signings and lectures, the bookstore holds discussion groups and for-fee classes on topics like first-person writing and mystery writing. "Our customers go out of their way to come here," Petrocelli says, "because what we do is different from anyone else."

Easy Does It

There are infinite ways to mix entertainment and retailing to create just the right entertailing concept for your store. "Whatever you do, however, make sure it's appropriate for your store and customers," advises Davidowitz. "Next, be interactive. Customers want to participate in what's going on."

Some of the best ways to inspire customer participation are the easiest. Serve coffee, show videos, let customers swing a bat or hit a few golf balls. Let children play computer games. Invite an expert or celebrity associated with your merchandise to meet and mingle with shoppers. Start a club that gives your most loyal shoppers special privileges. Sponsor a seminar. Host a public-service event or fund-raiser for a local charity at your store.

"Allow your customers to participate," echoes Marketing Developments' Eichelbaum. "Let them test your products right next to your merchandise display."

A computer software retailer, for example, could invite patrons to test new programs on computers next to his or her software display. An athletic shoe retailer might set up a display of running shoes with gigantic graphics of the Boston Marathon in the background and a video featuring runners from past marathons. The owner of a store selling musical instruments might make room for a ministage so shoppers can perform for a brief session, or install video screens to broadcast musical entertainment. "This livens up your store by providing customers direct experience with your product," says Eichelbaum. "It also provides entertainment and energy for other shoppers."

A great entertailing idea may not cost you a dime if you know where to look for help. "Identify someone who's doing what's appropriate for your retail store and make a deal with him," explains Davidowitz. "For example, get the owner of the best coffee store in town to [set up and run] a food cart in your store. Let him sell great coffee and gourmet cakes. He gets the money from his sales and pays you rent for the space. Your customers enjoy themselves and spend money in your store."

In the end, the most creative entertailing concept won't make up for what customers want more than anything else: top merchandise, fair pricing and outstanding customer service. Warns Davidowitz: "When all the smoke clears, entertainment can get customers into your store, but you still have to offer them a great value."


Carla Goodman, who writes frequently about business marketing, always shops where the entertainment is best.