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Theatrical moments

It feels culturally sacrilegious to say this, but I think retail has slowly replaced our need for the theatre.

Remember that UK TV show ‘Are you being served?’, where the shop assistants tended to their display cabinets and jousted with each other? Or that scene in ‘Love Actually’, where Alan Rickman is tortured by sales assistant Rowan Atkinson, who is painfully slow and overly-theatrical, whilst wrapping his mistress’ Xmas gift?

At a glance, these scenes look just like another day in retail. But at a closer look, these stores are the backdrop for performances where the staff are the actors, the wares are the props - and both are selling the same thing – the storyline.

As theatre ticket sales drop, the genres available to watch are dropping too. Vaudeville, freakshow, slapstick, romance, tragedies, comedies, musicals, interpretative, absurdism, historic and interactive productions are all becoming less popular. And as arresting as that may be, retail shops have picked up all these genres and they’re popping up everywhere.

Our human desire to explore all these themes hasn’t diminished, it’s just the way we go about satisfying our desires have.

When we set foot into a high-end theatre, our feet slowly sink into the thick, plush carpet. The lighting is immediately flattering, our faces are softly lit from the sides. The ushers guide us in further, and we’re encouraged to head to the bar for a pre-show drink. Once we take our seats, we enveloped by the magic of the theatre and what’s to come. While we wait for the lights dim and the curtains to raise, we shift from feeling seduced, into a heightened state of ‘ready to be entertained’. The story of the show is about to be acted out in front of us, and all we needed to do was buy a ticket.

From this point of view, it’s not a big leap to apply this experience to how it feels when we enter a high-end luxury store. The same players are all there; the finishes and flooring, the soft music, the staff. They’re there to guide you to buying into the bigger picture, the brand story. The staff are the actors and they use the store’s interior and their wares to sell you that story.

This theory doesn’t just apply to the top end of town either. Vaudeville acts used to roll into town on the smell of an oily rag. These shabby shows sold cheap tickets and they still need spruiker to sell them, not unlike the cheaper high street chain stores we have now.

When a person walks into any store, the play begins. There’s a courting, a quick chat, the customer and the salesperson know the script. The patter goes back and forth, and from there, the performance between the two is played out in-store and it can range anywhere from the banal to enthralling.

Of course, retail will never fully take the place of the theatre, and it will never give us the full gamut of emotions. But in the minutiae of the day-to-day, retail stores give us a stage to entertain us on, and in return for that, we shop.


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