The Future of Retail Discovered in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

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In his 2008 biography, “Marvin Traub: Like No Other Career,” Mr. Traub predicted that retailing would increasingly be dominated by digital technology and that shopping malls would evolve into “centers of entertainment” where department stores and small shops will share space with luxury hotels and restaurants, grocery stores, performance halls and gymnasiums. 

Traub’s premonition is a remarkably accurate depiction of Hudson Yards, the 28-acre mixed-use Manhattan real estate development that opened in March with one million square feet of retail space adjoining 18 million square feet of residential and commercial development, five office towers, 4,000 condominiums, the Equinox luxury hotel and gym, a dozen restaurants and an art and music complex. 

The fusion of brands, products and customers sharing a theatrical setting is one thing, playing a role in the theatrics is the next wave of retail engagement.

Today, at several Canada Goose retail shops you can try-on a parka and wear it into a dressing room that is wind-chilled to zero degrees, take a selfie or two with the polar bear and icicles, and buy the coat.

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Tomorrow you may be able to role-play as a participant in the Alaskan Iditarod Run, stay overnight in an igloo, and go ice-fishing – all within a safely controlled virtual environment sponsored by Canada Goose, The North Face, Columbia Sportswear, or Shimano Fishing Gear.

The next act of “retail as theater”

Scheduled to open during November 2019 is “ModelLand,” a 21,000-square-foot theme park in Santa Monica, California envisioned by Tyra Banks.

ModelLand will offer model role-play, interactive fashion features, and, of course, retail shops, all designed to encourage visitors to engage in their catwalk fantasies, and take home the outfit to prove it.

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It will be “a new world of storytelling and adventure in a grand, fantastical, physical place where all expressions of beauty are celebrated,” according to a news release.

“The multilevel ticketed experience invites all visitors to redefine what a model really is and for people to be the dream versions of themselves.”

The future of retail is physical, augmented, virtual and fully immersive

The journey that began a long time ago at Bloomingdale’s now brings us far, far away to Galaxy’s Edge, the Star Wars Theme Park that opened last month at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. The Disney World version will open in Orlando, Florida in August. Each 14-acre park cost $2 Billion to create and pushes the boundaries of an immersive retail experience to new levels.

Galaxy’s Edge is designed as a settlement located in a remote corner of the galaxy named “Black Spire Outpost” on the planet Batuu, a hideaway for smugglers and rebels fighting the evil Empire and First Order. 

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Of course there are spectacular rides, including operating the Millennium Falcon on a secret mission… However, the rides are not the primary attraction here. In addition to housing the Millennium Falcon and an X-Wing Starfighter, the outpost surrounds you with a merchandise marketplace with the look and feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar.

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Unlike other Disney parks, you are not visiting Galaxy’s Edge as a guest. At Black Spire Outpost you participate as a character with your own back story. This is an essential element in your immersive experience and inexorably leads to adding emotional attachment to purchases made at Galaxy’s Edge.

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In the first Star Wars movie, “A New Hope,” Luke drinks blue bantha milk at Uncle Owen’s moisture farm. Ever wonder how bantha milk tastes? Now you can find out. For only 7.99 imperial credits, also known as dollars, you can purchase the drink from the Bubo Wamba family milk stand. And yes, you can also purchase the green milk first-seen in “The Last Jedi,” when Luke milked a creature on Ahch-To. 

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Walk around the corner from the Milk Stand and you can enter Oga’s Cantina, where John William’s music is played by a Mos Eisley-style animatronic band. 

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The Coca Cola Company created custom packaging for Galaxy’s Edge.

The cantina’s proprietor Oga Garra is the local crime boss of Black Spire Outpost who controls the underworld on Batuu. Your character can buy, unusual for Disney, alcoholic drinks including a concoction known as the “Jedi Mind Trick.” 

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Be sure to stay in character… Should you ask Oga about purchasing a lightsaber he’ll identify you as “rebel scum” and alert the storm troopers. However, if you lean over the bar and quietly inquire about scavenging some scrap parts you may be directed to a blind alleyway and Savi’s Workshop. 

Retail alchemy

Entrance to Savi’s Workshop will cost you 200 Imperial Credits, that’s $200 real dollars. Only 14 visitors are allowed in the workshop at a time. Here you will be instructed on how to build your own working lightsaber from hundreds of optional components. The experience takes 15 minutes and you leave with your custom-built lightsaber and sheath, along with many Instagram moments. 

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Did you just pay $200 for a high-grade toy? Or, did you pay $200 for the experience of meeting with Yoda, building your own lightsaber, becoming a Jedi Knight, and now have a one-of-a-kind memento commemorating the event? 

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At Galaxy’s Edge your retail expenditures are inseparable from your experience, each item of merchandise is imbued with stories to share and remember.

Gamifying the Galaxy

With the Galaxy’s Edge mobile app you can “hack” locked door panels to make them open, access the memories of droids, scan for hidden contents within cargo boxes, translate signs written in Aurebesh, and tune into communication devices in order to pick up secret messages. 

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The app prompts deeper role-playing experiences. At first, the software encourages you to choose support for either the Resistance or the First Order, or to be an independent “scoundrel.” Your character will be assigned “jobs” around the outpost based upon your actions and choices. With each “job” you complete, and other actions you take, you receive digital rewards including ship schematics, star maps, and galactic credits, distinct options unavailable to other visitors.

Tracking your location via your bracelet, cast-members (employees) will be alerted of your identity and behaviors and will treat you in-kind. “I heard you crashed the Falcon into an asteroid earlier today… hehehe. Perhaps you should drink this and get a copy of the secret navigation guide. I may have one hidden away.”

And, Galaxy’s Edge is an evolving environment. The rides, shops, merchandise and stories are designed to change over time and to be updated with settings and characters from the latest Star Wars films, TV series and books. Each visit is intended to be unique, and the role you play and characters with whom you interact will change your experience. This is far from a “one and done” amusement park.

Notably, the data from the bracelet, the app, your purchases, and your character engagement is collected, analyzed and applied to increase engagement, crowd control, and profits, by Disney droids. Resistance is futile.

Beyond Galaxy’s Edge. What’s next?

Imagine that you are John, “the cat,” Robie, world-famous burglar played by Cary Grant in “To Catch a Thief.” You scurry across rooftops over the French Riviera, carefully crack open a safe, avoiding the detectives (other guests) chasing you. And, if you manage to steal the prized diamonds and other special items, they’re yours to keep.

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Don’t just watch Top Chef. Be a top chef. Eat the meal created by you and other “chefs,” take home the cookware, knives and table settings, and share the video of your performance.

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Act out your dream of being a famous celebrity stylist, design ensembles for your clients, bask in the adoration, applause and accolades… then take home the clothes.

Whether sequestered in a theme park or located closer to home, these alternate realities, and others like them, are coming to a venue (mall, store, warehouse, brownstone) near you.

We’re headed toward “Westworld,” Fortnite, The Matrix, and Total Recall… only in real life, for real dollars.

The integration of physical, digital, augmented and virtual reality will allow for hyper-realistic deeply emotional experiences. Acquiring items with which to engage in these activities, and take them home with you, will be integral to the model and the experience.

In the new era of retail engagement, experience is the product and products are part of the experience. Imagine that.

(c) David J. Katz, New York City, 2019

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