When COVID-19 hit the nation more than eight months ago, many thought retailtainment was dead. Many cities prohibited large gatherings, and retail analysts said few would attend big retail events. But retailers began to get creative and dive back into various retailtainment and experiential marketing strategies.
Analysts define retailtainment as a marketing concept that uses sound, ambiance, emotion and activities to get customers interested in merchandise and in the “mood to buy.”
The Freeman Company said last year that retailers and brands needed retailtainment or experiential marketing to drive more personal engagement with customers. A survey by EventTrack found that 91% of respondents felt more positive toward brands after participating in events and experiences. Tokinomo, a digital marketing and technology firm that focuses on smart displays, said earlier this year that retailtainment helps customers come back to the stores.
Retailtainment had been part of Walmart’s broad marketing strategy since 2014, when CEO Doug McMillon focused on using Supercenters as magnets to draw in consumers by offering unique experiences, often around movie releases and other promotions.
Walmart founder Sam Walton was a fan of retailtainment. In his autobiography “Made in America,” Walton said the retailer looked very much like a promotions company in the early days, with donkey rides and mower rides in the parking lot.
“I occasionally heard myself compared to P.T. Barnum,” Walton noted in his memoir.
With store traffic counts declining during the pandemic, retailers are taking another stab at experiential marketing to delight customers without compromising their safety. William White, chief marketing officer at Walmart, said retail marketing gurus had touted the need for experiential marketing to entice shoppers into stores, but that’s difficult during the pandemic.
That is why Walmart said it opted to take its experiential events outdoors and virtually. Walmart turned 160 of its store parking lots into drive-in movie theaters in August. The retailer worked in partnership with the Tribeca Film Festival for these events, which ran through Oct. 21 with 320 showings in 26 states.
“We recognize the challenges our customers and their families have faced over the last few months, and we wanted to create an experience where they could come together safely to create new memories. The Walmart Drive-in is one small way we’re supporting the communities we serve,” said Janey Whiteside, chief customer officer at Walmart.
In mid-October, Walmart announced an aggressive fall event series for families that will take place in 140 of its store parking lots. White said this came as some cities and towns banned trick-or-treating and tailgating for college football games. Walmart said as customers faced a “new normal” this fall, that wasn’t how they hoped to end the year. That was the catalyst for Walmart’s fall events the retailer said would help provide new experiences for families during the pandemic. Some Walmart parking lots are being transformed into college tailgating events in six college towns in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
“Many fans may not be able to gather in stadiums this year, but they can still have a little fun off the field … It’s a twist on the traditional tailgate, allowing customers an opportunity to don their gear and cheer on their teams while supporting local vendors who traditionally benefit from the hustle and bustle of a football Saturday,” White said.
He said drumlines and cheerleading squads would get the parties started, and local food trucks and school spirit shops would be on-site to keep guests festive and fed.
White said the fun didn’t stop there. Families also had the opportunity to participate in a virtual Halloween camp this fall hosted by actor Neil Patrick Harris. The event ran from mid-October to Halloween and offered families activities such as making Halloween masks, constructing haunted candy houses with Hershey products and making glow-in-the-dark slime.
“We’ve heard incredibly positive feedback from consumers on the Camp by Walmart experience, so we’re thrilled to add new interactive family activities through the holidays, starting with Halloween,” said Tom Fishman, general manager at consumer apps tech supplier Eko. “Families continue to need to find ways to stay engaged and entertained as they hunker down at home. Our Halloween refresh of Camp by Walmart provided a fun, safe and personalized experience for them to do just that.”
Trick-or-treating also took place on more than 100 Walmart store parking lots that were turned into “spooky street” trick or treat adventures. Walmart said these activities were contact-free and allowed for social distancing.
Target also opened its parking lots across the country for trick-or-treaters featuring “Boo Avenues” where witches, clowns and costumed employees handed out treats from free-standing stations. Target said guests were able to take part in the festivities without leaving their car. The festivities also included “costumed cars” and hands-free activities for all ages.
“At Target, we’re all about bringing joy to our guests’ everyday lives, and now, more than ever, those little moments of pure fun matter big time,” said Rick Gomez, chief marketing and digital officer at Target. “That’s exactly why we created Boo Avenue, a fun way for families to celebrate Halloween safely while enjoying time together.”
Carol Spieckerman, CEO of Spieckerman Retail, applauded retailers’ recent efforts to host retailtainment events like trick-or-treating and movies in parking lots. She said these provide families with entertainment without “ham-handed pitches.”
“These efforts do come across as being generous and thoughtful,” she added. “For retailers, events make good use of outdoor space while providing safety and fostering a sense of community to consumers.
“Necessity is the mother of invention, and the recent wave of creativity and practicality that retailers have demonstrated during COVID is impressive.”
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