The crisis of meaning and experience

'Shoppertainment' is the next phase of retailing, where consuming becomes a greater leisure 'experience':5 acrobats in the atrium, fire-eaters in the parking lots, music bands in record shops, celebrity chefs rustling up gastronomic feasts in kitchen shops, TV decorating personalities doing their DIY, Comme de Garçon in New York wooing customers through art exhibitions or chill-out areas. Bluewater, one of Britain's largest shopping complexes, even once suggested charging customers entrance fees to come to their 'experience'. When that happens, the distinction between the theme park and shopping centre will have all but evaporated.

Over to Las Vegas, and what Steve Wynn is up to counts. When the Wynn Las Vegas opened in April 2005, visitors stormed the entrance to see if his US$2.7 billion luxury resort would live up to all the hype. And there they were with 'dozens of designer shops tailored to one lifestyle - yours': Dior, Cartier, Manolo Blahnik, Louis Vuitton, Gaultier, Oscar de la Renta, Graaf, Ferrari Maserati, Chanel - you get the picture. The shows like La Reve? 'As an exercise in sheer power they're unbeatable.' 'La Reve is a new world of dreams that will alter the theatre-goers experience of theatre forever.' Franco Dragone, the artistic director 'has presented us with dazzling images that stir the senses and the soul'. The stores in Vegas are not just stores, they're the backdrop for shoppertainment. At the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian, singing gondoliers whisk shoppers down a winding canal and street performers distract those on foot. The Desert Passage at the Aladdin has a Moroccan bazaar theme in its mall and a thunderstorm that explodes every half hour. At the Forum Caesar's Palace you walk past gigantic fountains, statues, colonnades, animatronic Bacchus and Venus sculptures, and a spiral-shaped escalator - 'all to get a sense of the real spectacle: the stores themselves'.6

Commerce has recognized that consuming on its own increasingly provides insufficient meaning and satisfaction. It has sought to wrap the transaction of buying and selling into a broader experience to give it greater purpose. This development, labelled 'the experience economy', is a new mantra and a union of everyday consumption and spectacle.7 The process is turning retailing into a part of the entertainment industry, often blurring the boundaries between shopping, learning and the experience of culture. It involves creating settings and using every trick in the book, where customers and visitors participate in all-embracing sensory events, whether for shopping, visiting a museum, eating at a restaurant, conducting business-to-business activities or providing any personalized service from haircutting to arranging travel. In this process, shops can develop museum-like features, such as the Discovery Store or Hard Rock Café, with its display of original artefacts. Vice versa, museums can become more like extensions of entertainment venues, such as the new collection of museum spaces in Las Vegas, where 'cultural quality' is added to the menu of possible experiences.

Shops are turned into stage sets, installations and artworks, such as the Future Systems Selfridges store in Birmingham that looks like a reflective bubble, or Koolhaas' Prada stores in Las Vegas and New York. The latter cost US$40 million for just 23,000 square feet of retail space. The ground floor has little merchandise. The majority is in the basement. It feels cramped and lacks appropriate lighting. Bars are becoming less like your local, which you could rely on being the same for years on end. Their design can change as fast as an art gallery. These trends are shaking the foundations of museums, libraries, art galleries, science centres, shopping malls, cultural centres as well as virtually every aspect of the business world. Design, multimedia, theatrics and soundscapes increasingly move centre-stage. Given that we are subject to the vagaries of fashion, 'beyond the experience economy' is already being discussed, in which a transformation economy where people will pay for a life-changing series of experiences is upon us.8 And then towards the 'dream economy'?

With greater choices on offer and given our higher expectations, marketers are competing for customers' attention - trying to break through the clutter and sensory overload to capture their attention and to try to give them a sense of depth. How is this done? By creating experiences that are so distinctive that they stand out in a crowded landscape. Suddenly for the mainstream, the power of

Disneyland is seen as salvation and organizations are seeking to create their own 'brandlands', which are destinations, both real and virtual, that deliver a memorable message by telling a compelling story that reflects magic and wonder. Theme park-style technology, special effects, and storytelling techniques are applied to projects like the Sephora and Niketown stores and Volkswagen's experience centre, Autostadt, at its factory in Wolfsburg. Casa Bacardi's tells the story of rum, the Rainforest restaurant creates a plastic jungle environment. Leading imagineering companies work on corporate 'brandlands', cultural 'discoverylands' and 'learninglands', wrapping everything up in a cohesive narrative, engaging visuals and soaring musical scores. Everything in order to make a bigger story out of a mundane product. Everything to charge you more for a cup of coffee.

In its latest guise, the market economy has recognized other aspirations in its public beyond consumption alone - a desire for engagement, involvement and participation. Commercial enterprises have begun to take on core roles associated with culture and cultural institutions: The 'educational' experiences of Disney World's Epcot Center, Niketown's museum-like stores, and epic bookstores such as Borders come to mind.

At the same time, there is a corresponding, defensive appropriation of aspects of the marketplace by cultural institutions. They may borrow commercial criteria in selection processes, evoke entertainment modes in presentation, create facilities nearly indistinguishable from shopping experiences, or justify their existence in terms of marketplace goals.

Borrowings and uneasy graftings are one approach to understanding the interconnection of culture and the marketplace. Another is the response broadly defined as post-modernist, which views the jumble of modern conditions with ironic detachment, appropriating stylistic aspects as it suits. In effect, this viewpoint treats this complexity only whimsically. In examining these conditions, is it possible to identify and assert cultural values and priorities that are based neither on resistance nor on capitulation, to feel at ease with markets, but at the same time go against them?

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