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Sunday Stl-Post 5/11/03 Article
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Retailers discover the power of entertainment

By Thomas Lee
05/10/2003

Nan Moore (left) and her twin daughters, Nicole and Suzanne Moore, all of Clayton, take a sushi-making class from Julie Vinnedge, a personal chef at Viking Culinary Arts Center.

Tom Intagliata stared intently at the tee, adjusted his grip a few times and then uncorked a shot.

WHACK!!!!

The ball didn't go far. But then again, it didn't have to.

At Golf Galaxy, a new "golf superstore" in Chesterfield, a high-tech course simulator instantly calculated the speed, angle, trajectory and spin of Intagliata's ball as it slammed into a screen less than 10 feet away.

"I liked it," said Intagliata, 30, who plays golf about once a week. "It gives you the chance to hit the ball inside the store. I don't see any other way you could" test the merchandise before buying it.

In today's competitive retail environment, price and selection may not be enough to win over consumers, experts say. That's why some retailers are increasingly selling an "experience" that allows customers to interact with a product in a way that is meant to be fun and useful. These retailers rely on store design, technology and hired experts who offer advice and tutelage to customers.

"Retail has gone beyond price, convenience and stocking products - everybody does that," said Candace Corlett, a partner in WSL Strategic Retail, a New York consulting firm.

Now it's, "'Entertain me,'" she said. "There's no advertising that can replace that in-store experience."

Golf Galaxy also offer enthusiasts an indoor driving bay, a full-sized putting green and personal lessons from members of the Professional Golfers' Association of America.

At Viking Culinary Arts Center, a high-end cooking store that recently opened in Brentwood, customers can attend demonstration classes in a large test kitchen that occupies the center of the store. The Maytag Corp. has developed a "try it before you buy it" concept in which customers can experiment with washers and salespeople bake cookies to demonstrate ovens. At Home Depot Expo Design Centers, consumers work with professional interior designers on home improvement projects.

Even department stores and supermarkets are embracing the concepts. Dierbergs Markets Inc. in Chesterfield offers several cooking schools. Nordstrom Inc., an upscale department store chain based in Seattle, has cosmetics experts to demonstrate new products. The company also recently introduced at its stores Truefitt & Hill Royal Barbershop in London, an upscale hair salon for men.

For these innovations to really pay off, retailers must accomplish three things, said Michael Collins, vice-president of retail for Bain & Co., a consulting firm based in Boston. The experience must:

Significantly influence the consumer's purchase decisions.

Generate repeat traffic.

Enhance the image of the retailer.

The outcome also depends on the type of retailer and customer. By starting a cooking school, Viking Range Corp. is seeking to create greater consumer interest in its core high-end appliances. Golf Galaxy is an upstart retailer hoping to identify with golf fans the same way Recreational Equipment Inc., or REI, of Seattle commands the loyalty of outdoor enthusiasts, Collins said.

Randy Zanatta, president and chief executive of Golf Galaxy, first envisioned the concept while he was senior vice-president of marketing for electronics retailer Best Buy Co. in Minneapolis. An avid golfer, Zanatta said he wanted to apply Best Buy's big box concept to golf by "taking one product category and dominating it."

Zanatta designed the 17,000-square-foot Golf Galaxy stores to resemble golf courses. That way, customers could "come in and get their golf fix," especially during Minnesota's long winters, he said. The company, which opened its first Golf Galaxy in 1999, operates 22 stores in 10 states.

The interactive features are important for a couple of reasons, Zanatta said. First, they allows customers to try out the merchandise before making a purchase.

"You can't grab a putter without being on a putting green," he said. "Once you get something in your hand, you are more likely to purchase it."

Interactivity also leads to what Zanatta calls greater "hang-time"- meaning, a customer will spend more time in a store and is more likely to buy something if he or she is being entertained.

"We rarely get a person who spends a lot of time in the store and doesn't buy," said Terrill Bell, manager of the Chesterfield store.

If Golf Galaxy can be like REI and embody the lifestyle of its target customers, the company will be successful, Collins said. With its trademark rock climbing walls and "ride the river" simulations, REI is a model of how to marry interactivity with image, experts say.

"I think (Golf Galaxy) is a fine concept," Collins said. "Every driving range in America is trying to do something like that. However, the store is too new to say it will find a core customer that will return often."

For 22 years, Viking Range, based in Greenwood, Miss., has built a reputation as a maker of high-end ranges, refrigerators and dishwashers. The company started the cooking schools as a way to showcase its appliances, said Joe Sherman, president and chief executive of Viking Culinary Arts Center.

While Viking ranges are prominently featured in the 6,500-square-foot stores, they aren't sold there. Instead, the stores sell kitchen utensils, ingredients and cookware geared to the avid gourmet chef. The center also holds demonstration classes and cooking schools. Viking operates 11 centers and plans to open more.

"The concept grew out of the idea that if you could test-drive a luxury automobile, why can't you test drive an appliance?" Sherman said. "We want to show the uses and advantages of Viking products."

But Collins believes the centers mostly are brand builders.

The company initially "wanted to grow the cooking segment to get consumers to pay a little extra for these high-end appliances," he said. But Viking also wants to link its brand "to the fine art of (gourmet) cooking, which gives a halo effect for all of these products."

For Viking, style is just as important as substance. The company designed the center so customers can smell what's being made in the test kitchen. There's also a demonstration theater that can beam images to television screens throughout the store. At a Viking preview party last month in Brentwood, Mario Batali, a renowned Italian chef, used the theater to give a quick primer on pasta dishes.

"We want customers to experience the living brand," Sherman said. Other kitchen stores "don't have live products. It's hard to talk about (cooking) and not experience it."

This concept doesn't apply to all retailers, experts note. After all, customers flock to large discounters like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., because they want bargains, not cooking classes or golf lessons.

Retailers also must avoid overdoing it. Zanatta of Golf Galaxy, for example, ditched the idea of indoor sandtrap because "sand and balls were going everywhere."

Still, retailers must get creative or get left behind competitors "who keep upping the ante," Corlett said.

Reporter Thomas Lee:
E-mail: tlee@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8209