Now You Can Test That Mountain Bike Before You Even Leave the Store

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Visionaries have seen the future, and it looks like this:

Shoe stores with quarter-mile running tracks and half-court basketball courts. Golf shops with a 400-square-foot putting green and full-sized sand bunker. Outdoors retail centers with pistol ranges, wetlands hiking paths, and mini mountain-bike trails.

Sound like fun? That's the point.

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Surveys show that Americans are more active than ever - biking, hiking, kicking the soccer ball around, and joining softball leagues. They also reveal that people are bored with shopping: Trips to malls have significantly dropped.

So worried retailers - especially of sporting goods - are taking pages from the playbooks of companies like Disney and FAO Schwartz and combining shopping and entertainment. If you transform your store into a destination, an event, a playground, then people will stop by for the experience even if they aren't interested in the merchandise, experts say. The thinking is that, by the time they leave, those drop-ins will probably walk out with a new T-shirt or toy.

Some stores that have added hands-on activities have boosted their sales as much as 60 percent, according to the Sports Goods Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group. "This trend toward shoppertainment will grow," predicted SGMA president John Riddle earlier this month at the industry's largest trade show, the Super Show.

Whether the strategy will pay off in the long run, after the expenses of building an indoor track, ice skating rink, or climbing wall in a store, is still unknown. "I would say the book is still out," says Howard Davidowitz, head of Davidowitz & Associates, a New York consulting firm that specializes in retail trends. "Right now everybody is spending money to do it. We're going to have to sit down in five years and see, once it settles down."

Not only sports stores are toying with this new trend. Look for interactive touch-screen kiosks coming to your local drugstore's makeup counter. These electronic booths - you've seen the type in science museums and for gift registry at stores - are meant to be informative. But their novelty reportedly keeps shoppers at the counter four times longer. That gives that tube of lipstick or bottle of nail polish that much longer to win you over.

But sports stores lend themselves to this new way of selling, dubbed shoppertainment, experiential retailing, or entertailing. Think of the rain room in REI's flagship Seattle store where a mist sprays out for customers who are testing the store's Gore-Tex rain gear. Or Bass Pro Shops Outdoor Worlds that are opening up across the Midwest. A 32,000-gallon sport-fish aquarium greets you as you enter the store.

So it's in the realm of sports that you're likely to see stores really go the distance. Look for a 40,000 square-foot super Foot Locker to open in Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., next year. In addition to selling shoes, the store plans to sponsor track-and-field competitions onsite.

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