the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Deirdre Macken macken.deirdre@gmail.com

ALONG our shop­ping strip, a per­for­mance takes place ev­ery Wed­nes­day night. In the sil­very light of a shopfront, brides pa­rade gowns as the fit­ter, mum and girl­friends fuss about, tweak­ing bodices and adding ac­ces­sories.

For peak-hour driv­ers, it’s a pleas­ant dis­trac­tion from the traf­fic, es­pe­cially when pre-wed­ding nerves ex­plode and a satin head­piece flies across the show­room. But for the re­tail in­dus­try, it’s a les­son.

Shops are be­com­ing per­for­mance spa­ces. They are evolv­ing into places full of ac­tiv­ity, where cus­tomers make things, talk about stuff, test prod­ucts, taste pro­duce, learn a skill, strut their stuff, and pos­si­bly buy stuff.

The makeover of our re­tail ex­pe­ri­ence is oc­cur­ring hap­haz­ardly, but it’s al­ready mak­ing di­nosaurs of shop­keep­ers who hover be­hind the till. What’s more in­ter­est­ing is it’s re­fash­ion­ing the way we think of our­selves as con­sumers — ha, even that ex­pres­sion is in need of a makeover. Here are a few busi­nesses that have emerged from the shut­tered fronts of a re­tail land­scape in tran­si­tion.

Frozen yo­ghurt shops have popped up like blis­ters on a sum­mer pave­ment. They of­fer buy­ers the chance to choose the size they want, add their own top­pings in what­ever quan­ti­ties they like and, some­times, pay ac­cord­ing to the weight of the treat they’ve cre­ated. They’re not just fast food, they’re a snack ex­pe­ri­ence.

Or take the re­cently opened Wil­liamsSonoma, Pot­tery Barn and West Elm shops in Syd­ney’s Bondi Junc­tion. When­ever you wan­der in, there’ll be a de­sign con­sul­tant ready to of­fer ad­vice; there’ll be fresh juice to taste, a pizza be­ing pulled from an oven, a latte ready to pour and cook­ing lessons in the rear. The prod­ucts are an­i­mated, the ex­pe­ri­ence is en­gag­ing and it’s ironic the shops are in the shadow of the gi­ant West­field cen­tre. Maybe not for long.

Else­where in our area, a fine-wine re­tailer has set up a vat of grapes in the win­dow to take cus­tomers on a wine jour­ney — from the shop as­sis­tant stomp­ing on grapes to the fer­men­ta­tion process and, even­tu­ally, the stuff on the wine racks. The cup­cake shop holds bak­ing lessons and the Build-a-Bear fran­chise al­lows you to fash­ion your own cud­dly crea­ture.

Some shopfronts have be­come ser­vice cen­tres — show­ing off gym bod­ies, yoga lessons and hot-de­sk­ing free­lancers who have turned shut­tered shops into of­fice spa­ces. Other shopfronts have an Asian flavour: foot mas­sages, nail treat­ments and po­tion-mak­ers.

There is, in­deed, an Asian feel com­ing to many re­tail strips, re­mind­ing trav­ellers of the way artisans and trades­peo­ple mix their work­shops with their shopfronts. It’s also rem­i­nis­cent of older Euro­pean ways of work­ing and sell­ing from the same space.

But this is more about the evo­lu­tion of the con­sumer. As con­sumers, we’re spent, bored, un­at­tached and mean about the old way of buy­ing stuff. We want to do more than walk away with a full shop­ping bag.

The in­ter­net has helped re-cre­ate us as con­sumers or co-pro­duc­ers. On one level it’s turned shop­ping into a click ex­pe­ri­ence but at an­other level the on­line ex­pe­ri­ence has groomed us to be de­mand­ing. We go deeper on the net, wider too. We get ex­pe­ri­ences and feed­back, and we al­ways feel in con­trol.

If I were a re­tailer, I would hate shop­pers like us. If I were a depart­ment store chief ex­ec­u­tive, I too would have a whinge at the an­nual meet­ing. And yet there’ll be no respite for the Gerry Har­veys of the re­tail world. There’s no way we’ll go back to wan­der­ing the floors of depart­ment stores, look­ing for a sales as­sis­tant. There’s no way we’ll be happy to flick through clothes hang­ers only to be told, ‘‘ They’re the only sizes we’ve got left.’’

In­stead, we’ll in­sist on par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pur­chas­ing mo­ment. You can imag­ine walk­ing into a sports shoe store and say­ing, ‘‘ How do you ex­pect me to buy run­ning shoes when you don’t have a run­ning ma­chine where I can test them?’’ Or you might visit a book­shop and won­der why the owner doesn’t have a bookclub se­lec­tion, or doesn’t play tapes of au­thors talk­ing about their books. Where’s the back­story to the shop full of sto­ries?

We are de­mand­ing part­ners, for sure. And, if ever you’re stuck in a traf­fic jam out­side a bri­dal salon, you might watch the drama un­fold­ing in­side and think, we’re all bridezil­las to­day.

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