Oct. 01--On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, Bass Pro Shops in Olathe was more amusement park, less retail store.
Children gathered around an 18,000-gallon freshwater aquarium, a few with their hands and faces pressed against the glass, as an employee fed the stock. The "big dog in the tank" -- an alligator gar with a dual row of large teeth -- quickly gulped down a fish, earning oohs and aahs from the children and some parents.
After the feeding, 7-year-old Jessie Mead of Olathe ran circles around the trout pool's rock wall, stopping for a moment to pose in front of a stuffed brown bear, its teeth bared. About 7 feet tall, it towered over her. She just giggled in its arms.
Then it was off to paint brightly colored fish on her very own tackle box, a box she plans to take on her next fishing trip with her father, Dave Mead. For practice, Jessie also stopped at the catch-and-release tank to fish for one of the 40 large-mouth bass -- up to 3 pounds in size -- with a choice of either worm or lure. Children who caught a bass could have their picture taken before releasing it back into the tank.
"The kids just flip out when they come to this store," said Dave Mead. "It's a good store and fairly entertaining for kids -- they can touch, feel and see."
Best of all, the events -- the aquarium feeding, the craft class, the catch-and-release tank, even some fishing classes for adults and children -- are free.
Adding entertainment and experiences to the sales floor is known in the industry as retail-taiment and it's growing as retailers try to slow the flow of Internet shopping and get customers to come back to brick-and-mortar stores. The experiences not only drive traffic, they keep customers in the stores longer. The positive memories they create can make consumers more loyal to the brand, experts say.
"We live in an experience economy. If you don't offer experiences, you don't have a destination," said Randy White, chief executive officer of White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City company that works to create experiences at shopping centers internationally. "Starbucks turned coffee into an experience and people will pay a premium for it."
Dave Mead of Olathe takes his children to Bass Pro Shops about every two weeks. And while the recent "2013 Fall Fishing Event," held over two weekends in September, was more about the free experiences and family bonding, he also was checking out ear protectors for an upcoming deer hunting trip with Jessie. While she played at the trout pool, he shared fish stories with a store employee.
Many stores are still sticking with the traditional shopping experience: They put the merchandise on the floor, the consumer comes in to buy.
But those stores could be left behind.
"Just another sale is just another sale, but an invitation to an experience is an opportunity to connect on a deeper level," said Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a New York market research and consulting firm. "American Girl surrounds you with the story; it just invites you into the world. We're more excited about the shopping experience."
The experiences can be as varied as the retailers.
American Girl's events include free crafts, scavenger hunts and prizes. Victoria's Secret recently put on a free private party with DJs, free merchandise and treats, along with special discounts, at its Oak Park Mall store. Williams-Sonoma in Leawood offers free technique classes and cooking demonstrations and recently a tour at one of its vendors, an area winery. The locally owned Rimann Liquors in Lenexa and Prairie Village bring in vendors for free weekly wine and beer tastings.
Academy Sports + Outdoors in Overland Park has a golf simulator and indoor archery lane. The Lego Store in Oak Park Mall holds free monthly mini model builds. Scheels -- which likens its stores to Disneyland -- will have an indoor Ferris wheel and other attractions at its Overland Park store, scheduled to open in mid-2015.