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Are You Not Entertained? The Crazier The Better For Growing 'Retailtainment' Concepts

After years of being cooped up at home, consumers want to try something new. This realization, combined with a resurgence of the “retailtainment” trend, has prompted business owners to level up in unprecedented ways, as an arms race to provide the most epic customer experience unfolds across the U.S.

A conceptual rendering shows the layout of a future Alpine-X location.

“The crazier the idea, the more it makes sense to the consumer,” said Phillip Hooks Jr., a Dallas-based partner with Advisors Commercial Real Estate. “The more they want to experience those crazy ideas.”

Indoor ski and snowboard resort Alpine-X recently announced plans to open its first location in Virginia in 2025, followed by Austin and Dallas in 2026. Eventually, the business could have around 25 locations across the country. TOCA Social, a UK-based business that has been heralded as the Topgolf of soccer, will kick off its U.S. expansion plans by opening a Dallas location in 2023. 

If there is one thing retailers took away from the pandemic, it is that consumers have options, said Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights for the National Retail Federation. It is no longer enough to be the most convenient, the fastest or to have the broadest selection. Experience matters, and business owners are racing to one-up each other in an attempt to prove their concept is the one worth trying. 

“Consumers have more choice than ever before,” Cullen said. “You have to be able to compete on all fronts, and experience is part of that.”

"Retailtainment,” or businesses focused on providing customers with experiences rather than goods, predates the pandemic. A 2019 study by NRF called the trend “2018's winning formula,” and found that nearly half of consumers attended at least one retailtainment event that year. Among millennial shoppers, the share jumped to two-thirds. 

Retailtainment was placed on hold during shutdowns but Cullen said it has since resurfaced as the country reopens and social gatherings resume. Americans want to spend more of their time away from home, she said, and retailers are responding accordingly.

“We are seeing the pendulum start to swing back,” she said. “We are expecting to see more of a focus on experiences in physical stores and online in the next year. Consumers are increasingly looking to be more engaged and entertained.”'

Spending at restaurants and bars accelerated in the first half of 2021, an August study by Insider showed. And while spending growth on goods is moving at a pace faster than that of services, retailers and restaurateurs are capitalizing on consumers’ urge to spend more time away from home.

Zach Shor, senior vice president of TOCA Social US, said pent-up demand is driving businesses like his to up the ante in a post-pandemic world. The three-story TOCA Social location in Dallas will not only include a restaurant and bar, but also 32 soccer boxes that use interactive technology to measure accuracy, speed and agility.

The three-story TOCA Social location in Dallas will include a restaurant, bar and soccer boxes.

“People are a lot more willing to try new things,” Shor said. “What these kinds of concepts bring to the table is more than just a bar you sit at and drink with friends — it’s the social interaction; it’s the competition.”

Alpine-X CEO John Emery said his goal is to make snow sports accessible to more people by bringing the experience closer to where they live. Each indoor resort will include a 400K SF snow dome as well as a 300-room hotel and 250K SF of meeting space, restaurants, rental facilities and more. Alpine-X locations will occupy a minimum of 800K SF and have a build-out cost of more than $350M, Emery said. 

“Companies are recognizing that people want to do interesting things, and they want to do it in as economical an amount of time as possible,” he said. “And certainly in our case, we believe they’re going to want to do it in [a manner that is] economically feasible.”

Alpine-X locations will be open year-round and cost much less to operate than an outdoor ski resort, Emery said, which will allow the company to offer passes at a fraction of the cost of a traditional lift ticket. The skiing or snowboarding experience at Alpine-X will be interactive and use technology to measure skills and performance, Emery said. 

“A lot of businesses just go based on economics, but they are missing what people really want and crave,” he said. “So part of [Alpine-X] is making it more affordable; part of it is designing something where everybody who comes in feels like it was built for them.”

But the goal of Alpine-X isn’t just to attract skiers and snowboarders — it is to create opportunities for people to come together. One of the ways Emery plans to do this is by offering engaging amenities that attract a broad base of customers. This, he said, is the key to baking longevity into a niche concept.

“The model is about creating an experience of togetherness,” he said. “What people are going to pull away from Alpine is less about the event, it’s going to be more about the experience they have with people.”

The same goes for TOCA Social, Shor said. With 4 billion fans and players, soccer is the world’s most popular sport, but TOCA’s model democratizes the game in a way that attracts players of all skill levels. And visitors who don’t want to play will have plenty of other reasons to visit.

“The sport is more the vehicle for the social competition — it’s not really about the soccer,” he said. “You’re playing a game. By building the experience we’ve built, we’ve made it really really accessible to where literally almost anyone can play our game, whether you’ve ever touched a soccer ball in your life.”

Pop-ups, or retail leases for short periods of time, from a day or two ranging up to a few months, are another experiential trend that has ramped up in recent years.

The Friends Experience, an interactive exhibit where visitors can explore set re-creations from the beloved 1990s television show, view original props and costumes, and shop merchandise, popped up at a Dallas-area mall at the end of 2021. The event plans to visit seven additional markets in 2022. Golden Triangle Mall in Denton, Texas, offers three major pop-up experiences each year, including Jurassic Land, an exhibit of animatronic dinosaurs that features amusement rides, a butterfly garden and a gem dig.

Carrie Carter, marketing director for the mall, said pop-ups generate interest by creating a sense of urgency. These types of novelty offerings are especially valuable for malls, which must now go the extra mile to convince customers to visit stores in person.

“We want to offer newness and excitement, something customers can’t find online, something that gives a bit of added value when they walk through our doors,” she said.

The prevalence of e-commerce will continue to push retailers and restaurateurs to think outside the box. Consumers no longer see online and offline shopping as distinct experiences, according to an NRF study released in January. More than a third of Gen Z consumers primarily opt for hybrid shopping, or a mix of in-store and online, the research found.

But there is also an opportunity for retailers to benefit from e-commerce. Marketing technology and consumer engagement firm Valassis found that 77% of consumers are likely to purchase another item in-store when returning or exchanging a product bought online. Hooks said enhancing the in-store experience increases the probability that customers will spend money.

“E-commerce changed the way people shopped initially, but eventually, they always go back to the store,” he said. “If there's an experience there, the music is turned up, the lighting is a little dim, a spotlight is on the newest pair of shoes — it provides a sense of needing to be there and purchasing more.”