Accent On Theater -- Instead of using an ordinary bathtub in a showroom vignette, try to think of dramatic new ways to present common elements such as vanities and sinks.

To attract today's buyer to your showroom, I believe you need to deepen your creative vision. Displays should be simultaneously attention getting and believable. To accomplish that, you need to take risks and create the unexpected.

Many retailers today are known for being risk takers. Would it be fair to say that Nike is a different and a creative type of shoe store? Other risk takers include FAO Schwartz, Warner Brothers, ABC Carpet and Home, Anthropologie, Barney's, Crate & Barrel, Wet Seal, IKEA, and Barnes & Noble.

What is it that these retailers do to set themselves apart? They create a shopping experience for the customer.

The stimulating displays of toys at FAO Schwartz are just as exciting as choosing a toy to buy. Perusing the presentation of merchandise at Barney's in New York City is like going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view artwork. Selecting a book at Barnes & Noble can extend to a cup of cappuccino. Teens can picture themselves as the world's hottest pop singer while shopping for clothes at Wet Seal.

We have become jaded as consumers. All products have begun to look alike. So today, it's not just the products that we're shopping for -- it's the EXPERIENCE!

Malls themselves have become an experience. When Mall of America in Minnesota first opened, we were all dazzled by the entertainment that was also included in the mall. It's not just waterfalls and vegetation anymore.

In an expansion of that idea, one can take in a more state-of-the-art mall experience at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Here, visitors can stroll along the canals, visit St. Mark's Square and even ride in a gondola. Just want to sit and watch the scenery? That's OK, too. Watch the clouds roll by and day becomes night as you dine on the square.

Grocery stores have now become an experience as well. Even in a supermarket, dramatic lighting, piped-in music, unique displays, and engaging scents enhance your shopping experience.

When will it stop? Not for a while. Retailing, for the next five years at least, will focus on five important components. Specifically, these are:

  • High design
  • Theater
  • Product service
  • Information services
  • Brand management

    High design is the key. To set your showroom apart from the others, it must be different. Many showrooms make the mistake of planning their vignettes to look just like they would in someone's home. That's nice, but the customer is looking to fulfill a dream. If your displays look too realistic, they don't acknowledge that dream.

    Theater is the means by which you simulate the consumer. To do this, create displays with pizzazz and dare to be different. Instead of using an ordinary bathtub, create one in tile or stone. The accompanying photo shows a tile tub with a stone ledge. The ledge continues around the room and becomes a vanity. The design of the vanity bowl is somewhat commonplace these days, but still unusual enough to be attention getting. The accessories are realistic but their placement is more dramatic -- like what you might find in a showhouse.

    The lighting is theatrical but still provides enough illumination for the buyers to see the products. Though the scene is believable, it skillfully combines high design and theater. The buyer is sure to be impressed with the design capabilities of this showroom and the uniqueness of the room setting. This is the stuff creates and closes sales!

    Once you have the design of the showroom established, you'll also need to think about the third component -- the product services that you offer. Perhaps you'll choose to provide free design services for consumers, or maybe you'll opt to offer them to your builder trade. Installation is probably on your list of product services, but why not consider offering project management as well?

    Offer Customer Comforts -- It's not a bad idea to reserve a dedicated area of the showroom in which customers can sit back in comfort and consider all the design options you've presented.
    Consumers are looking for one-stop shopping. Perhaps you can eliminate the project's hassle factor by coordinating the allied trades, too. Or maybe you can offer a cleaning service -- either just after the project is complete or further down the road. If nothing else, it's one way to get the customer to think about maintenance.

    Another way to help the consumer would be to offer information services. As I said, customers are looking for one-stop shopping. Maybe you can serve as the central intelligence point for information on all the products the customer will need to use in her project. This can be done via the Internet or by coordinating with other showrooms. Don't be afraid of losing the customer to another trade. Most customers are genuinely thankful to anyone who helps them wade through the mass of product information out there. Anything you can do to make their lives easy, and cut down on the amount of traveling around to various sources to get the project done, will pay dividends in the long run.

    And just how do you make the customer comfortable in your showroom? One way would be to set up a comfortable seating area where they can relax. I was once told that you can't get the customer to say yes to the sale unless you get them to sit down! So be sure to provide a quiet, comfortable spot where customers can sit down and think about their decorating dreams.

    Take another look at the photo accompanying this article. You'll notice it depicts a very stylish area with room to spread out papers, drawings and photos. As you can see, someone was thoughtful enough to offer refreshments too! Do you?

    The area should have comfortable seating that's also easy to get in and out of. Choose furniture that isn't too soft and that's easy to keep neat. The sofa in the photo has what is called a "tight seat," rather than loose cushions. The end result is you won't have to keep straightening those pillows! The accessories are as upscale as the clientele you're hoping to attract. It's well lit and inviting, the kind of place that says "we know about design!"

    In the next installment of this column, I'll discuss that fifth component I identified in this article -- brand management. Every business should have a brand, and you should be looking to manage and expand yours. I'll explain how retailers like Disney, Warner Brothers, Nike, and Benetton tackle this challenge, and detail some lessons you can apply in your own business.