Parallels between theaters and retail concepts

The best way to learn something new about the town you live in is to either have guests and show them around – meaning you buy a travel guide before to pimp up your knowledge – or to stumble upon an interesting book and read it in the evenings. The latter happened to me and by accident, I got some interesting insights into the Aalto Theater here in Essen, Germany. From the outside, you would expect a very modern inside – let’s wait and see if you’re right. How this connects to customer experience? Let’s have a look at some theater history…

Theaters re-invented their stages in the 1920’s

As early as that, theater makers explored how to get away from the proscenium arch stage (stage on one side, seats on the other) and make it possible to integrate the audience into the plays. This meant two main changes. To write scripts that allow for interaction between actors and audience and to have stages that are versatile enough to actively drive that interaction. The old-fashioned proscenium arch stage with its separation of stage and audience could not serve that purpose.

The concept of integrating stages and theater buildings was driven forward in the coming years, culminating in the concept of the “Totaltheater“, envisioned by Erwin Piscator and Bauhaus founder Martin Gropius: A theater that wraps itself around actors and audience and is flexible to accommodate to almost every possible setup.

Looking at the breath-taking architecture of the Aalto Theater mentioned above (opened in 1988), you would expect to see a very progressive stage concept that reflects its wrapping. But you won’t. The concept found inside the theater is old-school proscenium arch, limiting possibilities of play. The revolution happened on the outside, only.

Retail concepts have mainly stayed clear of a revolution

Instead of “blowing up all opera houses” as French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez provoked in a 1967 interview, the retail stages have mostly stayed as they are. Looking at concept stores around the world (worth a read: The Slowretail Blog), much thought has been put into interior design and the various ways of displaying the good, illuminating them the right way and to some extend also the way how the shop staff is trained to interact with customers. Actors talking to an audience.

So when you cut out all the furniture and decoration what is left is a journey of entering the store after having had a look in the window, browsing around or asking for a specific item, examining it a.k.a. trying it on, eventually paying and leaving. This experience might be backed by some digital signage or processing a payment via an iPad but these are all features and make no big difference to the customer.

Is this shopping experience more fun? Maybe. Would a customer prefer to spend more time there than at any other place except home? Not sure. At the end asking again: Was there a revolution? No.

Some answers can be found in today’s theaters

Coming back to the aim of the 1920’s theater folks, the first thing is to include the customer much more into the whole sales and service concept of the store. What can be more engaging when customers stay a little longer on the shop floor only because they want to be part of a discussion or problem resolution. Think of an Apple store, where it can happen that one or two extra customers end up around the original agent + customer duo to put in their experiences around a certain product and its suitability for a specific purpose. This is engaging for all parties and the customer that walked in ten minutes before “just to have a look” exits the store with the feeling that he helped another customer taking to the right decision. Positive feelings included.

Another way to go is to confront your customers with your own big ego, like a theater play where the actors shout at the audience and make it feel like being kind of wrong where it is seated. Or like Miles Davis when he turned his back on the audience to demonstrate that he did not need anyone to listen to him. If customers appreciate this kind of behavior is up to the individual, but if such habits fit to the brand, it is appropriate to design your customer experience that way. Abercrombie & Fitch does it like that and officially states that most of their customers should not wear their clothes anyway, because of their unappealing bodies.

The last example from the world of theater is to bring the stages to the places where the people and the audiences are. In the theater world this often happens when a major renovation is going on and the theater is closed for a long time. In the customer experience world this happens when customers find less time to visit their favorite stores. The stores come to the people like in the well-known example of Tesco in South Korea.

More areas of differentiating customer experience are still to be explored

Is this all? Not a all. What a about stand-up comedy? How can it inspire the way we sell and service tomorrow? Maybe we should think about adapting improvisational theater methods to shops. Could be entertaining, could deliver solutions to customer problems that we have not seen before. And I haven’t even started thinking about performance theater…

In the end the take-away is to do it differently than the folks in the town I live in. They mastered the exterior design of the Aalto-Theater but fell short of doing the same magic to the inside: enabling different and differentiating customer experiences that bring out the actors’ and play’s luster.