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Shopping experiences in fantasy worlds

Modern department stores and boutiques are dispensing with the interchangeable luxury look of the past and transforming into fantasy spaces, which leave a person changed – even if they haven't bought anything.

Rock star, Jerry Garcia, who was also known – with good reason – as Captain Trips, is not your typical corporate consultant. For decades, Garcia toured the world with the psychedelic rock band, The Grateful Dead, and opened concerts with the words: “Welcome to another evening of confusion and high-frequency stimulation.” But even the conservative Wall Street Journal recently recommended that the crisis-stricken retail sector adopt the band’s strategy if it wants to survive.

The Grateful Dead were the first musicians to understand that the record was not their core product, the concert experience was. The band gave away records and encouraged piracy to get their music heard, they sent their fans a newsletter – and thus created what is now called a community, one which is still alive and well more than 20 years after Garcia’s death and the official end of the band.

“Retail stores are no longer exclusive portals for the sale of goods and must find a new raison d’etre,” says the Wall Street Journal. If you were to take a stroll in 2017 – a good 20 years after the launch of – through the city centres of New York, London, Berlin or Tokyo, you would discover that many new shops and department stores actually appear to be following the Grateful Dead’s principle: consumer spaces that feel like a rock concert, an experience, colourful, enthralling, wild and excitingly new – “high-frequency stimulation”.

Retro-futuristic space in pastels and gold by India Mahdavi for the RED Valentino Store in London. Photography: RED Valentino

Modern department stores and boutiques are dispensing with the interchangeable luxury look of the past and transforming into fantasy spaces, which leave a person changed – even if they haven’t bought anything. For the RED Valentino store in London, architect India Mahdavi has created a retro-futuristic landscape of pastels and gold, which is so harmonious that you always feel as if you have strayed onto a Wes Anderson film set, and that one of his eccentric characters could jump from the changing room at any time.

The Zhongshuge bookshop in the Chinese city of Hangzhou is reminiscent of another film genre. The XL-Muse design studio from Shanghai reimagined an old-fashioned product, i.e. the book, as a magical object. Using lights, mirrors and futuristic materials, they created a reading room that looks like the library on the starship Enterprise, a boundless space with endless shelves in which all the knowledge of the universe is stored.

The book as a magical object in the Zhongshuge bookstore in Hangzhou. Photography: Shao Feng

The customers visiting the Siam Discovery shopping centre in Bangkok are also in for a surreal, exciting experience. The Japanese designers of the nendo studio did not design footwear or clothing departments, instead they created 13 fantastical spaces that look like the different levels of a video game. Chief designer Oki Sato said in an interview: “It is very important that the physical space slowly captivates the customers, enticing them to make impulse buys.” Interior design as real-time marketing.

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In the Siam Discovery shopping centre in Bangkok, 13 surreal spaces that look like something from a video game await potential customers. Photography: Takumi Oia

The 21st century is the era of online shopping. With just a few key commands, mouse clicks and swipes of a screen you can view a truly endless selection of smartphones, pullovers and kitchen appliances. According to Forrester Research, however, online shopping still only represents twelve percent of retail sales even now. The category called “web-influenced sales in physical stores” – where a customer researches online and then buys the product in store – accounts, on the other hand, for 38 percent of sales. It is precisely because we spend so much time in front of screens, working through databases that we yearn for moments of reality. “Analog experiences can provide us with the kind of real-world pleasures and rewards digital ones cannot”, writes David Sax in his current best seller “The Revenge of Analog”. “When we create and possess real, tangible things, we feel especially good.” Perhaps, this is also one reason why, according to market analysis conducted by the EHI Retail Institute in Cologne, even today one in two of the 1000 largest online shops also have offline businesses (even Amazon has a bookshop in Seattle).

However, they are not creating traditional department stores or boutiques where the blouses/shoes/earrings are always located on the first floor; no these are living spaces: pop-up and concept stores, that change constantly and adjust to meet the needs of the customers and the Zeitgeist. According to the people behind the New York shop Story: “We’re the store that has the point of view of a magazine, changes like a gallery, and sells things like a store.” Each month, Story is reinvented anew, curating products under a motto like “Disrupt” or “Have Fun!”. Reason enough for customers to keep coming by for a look.

Story in New York is constantly reinventing itself, curating products under a specific motto or theme. Photography: Drew Innis

A contemporary shop must thus offer customers both interesting content and stories, and an exciting setting – half 3D fashion magazine, half adventure playground. But even that is not enough. “We need a return to craftsmanship”, says Jonathan Irick from the international creative agency Ziba, which designs retail concepts for the likes of Adidas, “and to combine the strengths of the digital and analogue processes.” In the web shop of the legendary US department store Saks, you can, for example, use live chat to speak with a fashion expert in a store near you. After viewing a few suggestions online, you can arrange a meeting in store and get further support there from the personal stylist. In the mirror of the Ralph Lauren shop in New York, there is a touchscreen with camera, which automatically suggests appropriate accessories for the item of clothing you are trying on.

Every era brings forth the shopping environment it deserves. The middle classes of the 19th century demonstrated their new-found power with the palatial department stores of London, Paris and Berlin. In 1863, Charles Baudelaire wrote about the attraction of the opulent display windows: “In this black or light-filled hole, life lives, life dreams, life suffers.” Nothing has changed since then. Walmart and Super-U represent the era of mass consumption, the one euro shops embody “the cheaper the better” society, while online stores with the charm of Excel tables represent the cold technological faith of the noughties. And now? We want department stores and shops that combine the tangibility of the analogue world with the dynamic nature of the web. “The choice we face isn’t between digital and analog”, writes David Sax. “The real world isn’t black or white. It is not even grey. Reality is multicoloured, infinitely textured and emotionally layered.”

Words: Tobias Moorstedt