Stores Hope Set Designs Lure In Buyers

For The Times

Maybe you've noticed the hay on the floor of Ralph Lauren's Polo Country Store in South Coast Plaza. Or the musty books on the desk of Sam Spade's office in Politix/Sleuth at Fashion Island. Or the rocks piled next to the sweaters at South Coast Plaza's Banana Republic.

What once was considered sloppy housekeeping is now a carefully orchestrated program to enhance the shopping experience. The old books at Politix/Sleuth and the hay at Polo are but minute details in an effort to create ambiance, like set designs in the theater. The dusty, cracked leather couches and a window overlooking Sam Spade's urban jungle are Politix/Sleuth's way of conveying a mood in which to part with one's money.

Designed and built by a group of Hollywood studio set designers, Politix/Sleuth recreates the drama of a Dashiell Hammett detective novel on the third floor of the Atrium Court at Fashion Island. The customer becomes part of the cast of characters as he shops.

The customer is also put on stage, so to speak, at Units, one of the most exciting stores to have popped up in the county in 1987. At the women's clothing store in MainPlace/Santa Ana, shoppers model the "one size fits all" knit clothes found inside the all-glass shop, thus becoming the performers for those outside looking in.

At Banana Republic, buyers embark on a make-believe safari through an intricate jungle of khaki pants, jerseys and bermuda shorts, complete with palm trees, a Jeep, rocks and a rhino head. And The North Face, the outdoors equipment store on the third floor of South Coast Plaza's Crystal Court, sports faux granite counters and the smell of pine trees.

"The element of entertaining is definitely having a greater role in retailing," says Jeff S. Jani, vice president of business affairs and marketing for Robert F. Jani Productions of Palos Verdes, which is among the country's top producers of public extravaganzas, from Disney's first Main Street Electric Parade to the grand opening of the Century City Marketplace last November.

"Shopping more and more is considered a leisure activity, a form of entertainment rather than a necessity," Jani says. "The most festive shopping centers will be the ones people will want to go to."

Retail consultant Peter Glen of New York says theatrical elements have crept into marketing because shoppers crave excitement.

"Pawing through a rack at Mervyns is boring," Glen says. "Nobody sells anything that anyone needs, and shoppers have become bored with it all. If stores want to be successful, they better hurry up and imitate Walt Disney."

Speaking of Disney, the Disney Store at South Coast Plaza is a good example of theatrical retailing. With a movie screen flashing Disney favorites as a backdrop and cameras hanging from the ceiling, the shop is like a cartoon version of a drive-in theater.

Other dazzlers throughout the county include: the Imagination toy store at MainPlace/Santa Ana, with its twinkling lights, toys set out for kids to play with and its tiny entrance designed for tiny shoppers; Kiere, a pastel-colored neon confection featuring junior clothes at Fashion Island, and Jessica McClintock, whose "flowing drapery" entrance and classical interior won its designers, Gensler & Associates of Irvine, a recent award from the county chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

"The customer is becoming more and more visually sophisticated and is more demanding in terms of what will excite them to buy," says Maura Eggan, marketing director of South Coast Plaza. "There's never been a time when store design has been more important."

Glen says it's not just the East and West coasts that are spawning innovative store designs, although the trend did begin in Southern California and New York.

"It's everywhere," he says. "You'll see this all over the country. Another trend is that great ideas are not coming just from L.A. and New York. Great ideas in retailing are coming from the Midwest, too."

Later this month, a new Joan & David shoe store will open at South Coast Plaza with some fanfare because, as Eggan says, "it promises to be in the vanguard of store design." Created by Europe's celebrated architect, Eva Jiricna, who is also credited with designing the Kenzo fashion shops and tres trendy Joe's Cafe in Chelsea, the Joan and David store will be watched by retailing experts to see how "top of the line" designs by world-famous architects affect retail sales.

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