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Only boring retailers are dying: long live retailtainment


By Garry Williams, New ventures business director

November 14, 2023 | 6 min read

It’s too easy to get drawn into the ‘retail is dying’ mindset. Garry Williams, new ventures business director, UNIT9, corrects the record.


Nike Air Max experience

Sephora’s global chief brand officer, Steve Lesnard, recently commented that “retail isn’t dead, but boring retail may be in trouble” - and I couldn’t agree more.

The ‘death of the high street’ narrative has been circulating for the past decade, and the pandemic served a further blow. But brick-and-mortar stores still play a vital role for today’s consumers. Shoppers still want the physical shopping experience, with 74% of consumers relying on stores at some point during their purchase process - they just want more from them.

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But here’s the crux. 70% admit they can’t recall the last time a brand excited them. But the tide is turning, and a new wave of highly interactive, engaging and entertaining experiences gives retailers a fresh lease of life.

IP collaborations are a great way to get playful and inject some fun into the shopping experience. The Barbiecore trend this year opened up numerous opportunities for retailers to jump on board - from experiential pop-ups to tech-led takeovers. Selfridges went over to the pink side in the summer, opening a Barbie ‘Dream House’ within the Oxford Street store that brought the world of the Barbie movie to life for shoppers. Featuring a rental service straight from Barbie’s wardrobe, an ice-cream bar, prize draws, and Barbie-pink candy floss at the Selfridges Cinema, this was retailtainment at its finest. Over in New York City, Gap took a more digital approach to its big IP moment with a mobile AR takeover to launch its Barbie clothing line. Passersby transformed Times Square by anchoring AR neon signs and Barbie characters to Gap’s flagship store and the surrounding area in an experience more akin to location-based entertainment than standard high street retail.

Another digital-led advertising trend that’s revitalizing retail is ‘faux OOH’ - and now is the time for brands to get involved while the format is still fresh and exciting. As well as the ability to bring any billboard or shop facade to life (not just those with digital capabilities), creating social VFX content that teases the boundaries of reality allows retailers to achieve the impossible and think larger than life. As brands such as Pull and Bear and Maybelline have proven, faux OOH certainly brings the drama and adds some much-needed excitement back into the high street experience. Plus, planting the seed of “Is it real?” in the minds of consumers is a sure way to get people talking.

Back in-store, gone are the days when visual merchandising was enough to stimulate shoppers. With 63% wanting brands to provide them with multisensory experiences for total immersion, brands such as Nike are appealing to shoppers’ ears as well as eyes (and wallets). The Air Max Listening Room in the Niketown London Store matched visitors up with a track based on their personality before encouraging them to take a break from shopping and cocooning them with sound and audio-reactive visuals. Taking a taste-led approach, Johnnie Walker’s new retail space in Edinburgh offers shoppers various immersive tastings, food pairings and personalized bottle engraving in-store that turns their trip into a full-flavored experience.

Window displays are also proving to be a key area that brands can optimize for entertainment. Ikea Harajuku launched an intriguing campaign by creating an apartment for virtual influencer Imma as part of their shopfront, where she lived in front of curious shoppers for three days, while Samsung’s hands-on interactive window displays at KaDeWe in Berlin are another example of pure fun for shoppers, offering everything from art installations to a gamified toy machine.

There’s more to retail than sales transactions. It’s time to redefine how we measure ‘impact’ in the retail space - brands gradually realize that evoking emotion from shoppers via fun, enjoyable experiences can be just as valuable as streamlining efficient sales, but there’s so much more that can be explored. The door is wide open for brands looking to wow shoppers with a refreshing blast of retailtainment.

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