Product demonstrations, in-store events and even role plays are all helping indies fight back in the battle against the online retailer. Robert Hutchins investigates the different strategies adopted by retailers to keep customers coming back for an encore

The rise of in-store theatre

In a market dominated by the online retailers’ promise of low prices and easy shopping, bricks and mortar stores are finding a new way to fight back with a service online stores can’t match: step forward in-store theatre.

The scope of in-store theatricals range from events, competitions, display units with LED screens and product demonstrations. But the biggest drive for creating hands-on in-store atmosphere is coming from character appearances.

“Character appearances are how we, as High Street retailers, differentiate ourselves from online shopping,” Toytown manager Brian Simpson tells ToyNews. “The experience a customer receives can make them a customer for life.”

Rainbow Productions is the UK’s official supplier of over 100 well-known children’s character costumes and is reporting a definite increase in business.

“We have certainly seen an increase in bookings for licensed character appearances within a retail environment, probably a product of retailers competing with online shopping,” explains Rainbow Productions’ marketing manager, Helen Ede.

“Retailers are looking to generate added theatre and a guest appearance by, what is to many young children, an A-list celebrity encourages a higher footfall.”

Peppa Pig, The Octonauts and Tree Fu Tom are just some of the many licensed characters in Rainbow Productions’ portfolio.

But it is not only the licensed characters that excite the young consumers. Toymaster has also seen an increase in the popularity of its own character costume, Toby Toymaster.

Toymaster’s operations director, Ian Edmunds claims: “Since we named our character Toby Toymaster and utilised him as the face of Toymaster, we now have ten costumes that we rent out to members, and they are out with members most weeks.”

Rainbow’s Ede adds: “An experienced performer can really bring the brand to life. And, of course, character visits play a role for licensors, licensees and retailers by boosting the brand image and stimulating sales across all categories.”

Character appearances also offer the ideal opportunity for retailers to run brand themed events, a sentiment expressed by Zhara Armstrong, manager of Treasures of Wetherby.

“We have held a couple of Sylvanian Family days, which have been very popular,” she comments. “We have had Freya Chocolate Rabbit come and visit the shop to meet all the children. As part of that we had a Sylvanian Families activity and offers such as two for £10 on Sylvanian products.”

Armstrong’s shop has been widely praised for its dedication to in-store theatre, playing host to events that stretch further than purely character appearances.

“One of our more evolved events was a Knights of King Arthur day, highlighting all the lovely Knights from Papo. With their support, we had an actor come in as King Arthur and a Sword in the Stone scene,” adds Armstrong.

“Throughout the day, kids came in dressed up as knights and princesses to try and remove the sword. We had a few winners and it was really good fun.”­­­

Recognising the important role in-store theatre plays in retailers’ relationships with their products and customers, suppliers are increasingly keen to offer shops in-store support.

“Good presentation in-store is key to any retailer if they are to be successful, which is why we invest so much into in-store theatre,” explains Tanya Laperouse, PR manager at Wow Toys.

“We have a shop fit programme, helping retailers with illuminated LED Wow shop-fit.

“This year over 120 stores have been fitted out with two or three metre shop fits.”

“For us to invest thousands of pounds into a store means we take this symbiotic relationship seriously, and retailers are delighted when their sales shoot up as a result.”

Of course it’s not all plain sailing. For some stores funding and location can pose limitations on their in-store activity, reducing the viability of character appearances. These stores look to adopt different, simpler methods.

“Our location and size is actually prohibitive to bringing in character dress-up so we create theatre in other ways,” says Helen Gourley, owner of Dunblane-based ToyHub.

“We open a lot of the products and provide demonstrations so that staff can understand the product whilst parents and kids can really fall in love with a range.

“We make sure our windows look amazing and these draw the crowds into us. At Christmas it’s crucial to have windows with real impact.”

And it’s simplicity that is often the most effective form of theatre.

“Our events certainly boost sales,” says Treasures’ Armstrong. “But our more intricate events don’t necessarily drive sales more than the simpler things.

“If [theatre] is engaging, well thought through and the kids know what you’re doing with a recognizable product, the reaction is great.”

In their fight back against the online retailers, many High Street stores are even taking the battle to the digital scape, recognising the relevance of online in-store theatre through virtual tours of their stores thanks to Google Maps.

Armstrong’s Treasures and James Colclough’s Melton Toys are just two stores which have taken this approach, with successful results.

“A lady rung me looking for a particular product. She was online looking at the store through the map and was able to tell me exactly where in the store it was,” says Armstrong.

“It must help boost sales as it allows people to put together a plan to come in to our store, particularly if they have driven a long way.”

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