Themed retail encompasses elements of entertainment, education and experience. It is carefully designed and crafted to attract today's consumers - including those who gravitate toward shopping on the Internet at their desks.

Themed retail, once the domain of the Disneys, Warner Bros. and Universal Studios of this world, appears to be capturing the imaginations of some of the most unlikely companies - sophisticated, low-key retailers who nevertheless are anxious to compete successfully in our market economy.

But marketing is more than glitzy, super-sized displays, cartoon figures, electronic messages and custom soundtracks. It's about putting merchandise in the best possible light, attracting appropriate customers and developing buyer loyalty.

It's about selling merchandise and creating the desire on the part of customers to return again and again to a store, shopping center or mall.

Theming is discovering and developing a story line that promotes branding and enhances what the retailer is all about.

"It makes people pay attention," says John Oldham Jr., president and CEO of Creative Environs Inc. International in Jacksonville, Fla. It gets people to interact with what you are selling, instead of just having items dangling from hangers or stacked on shelves.

"But it's a big mistake to simply say, 'Oh, wow, let's theme our store,'" he says. "It must have value to the retailer.

"You should have a plan, a story," he continues. "You can educate someone about your business. There may even be global issues to explore, issues that can be tied into your merchandise."

Dan Blackman, vice president for business development at Penwal Industries Inc. of Cucamonga, Calif., believes theming and entertainment venues will be strong in the future. He believes this despite what he sees as struggles in the themed restaurant business.

"You need good food product and good service to support themes," says Blackman. "In retail, the formula will be quality product plus service and entertainment."

Blackman describes the ideal themed retail experience as a "bonding process" that runs from store uniforms to merchandising to the ways customers are greeted. Theming isn't just a nice facade; it's a total approach.

"In its infancy, with leaders like Disney and Warner Bros., theming was exciting," he says. Consumers now may be more sophisticated and demanding.

The shrewd retailer identifies its audience, locates within a 20-mile radius of them, chooses its retail setting carefully and provides a stimulating, pleasing design using colors, sound systems and signage.

"F.A.O. Schwarz has created a shopping environment that's very joyful," Blackman continues. "Re-designed Limited II stores have store entrances that are distinctive and inviting. The emphasis now is on drawing customer attention."

Rocks, trees and waterfalls Superbowl Sunday was gray and dreary in southeast Michigan. But families were streaming into Great Lakes Crossing, the Taubman-owned upscale outlet emporium in Auburn Hills to enjoy the sights, including a waterfall pouring fresh water into a well-stocked, 30,000-gallon aquarium at the ever-popular Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World.

Indigenous fish, all idetified on educational signs, inhabit the land and nearby stream, which share some of the 130,000 sq. ft. of floor space with products such as cork-handled fishing poles, rifle cabinets, boats, tents and outdoor wear.

Stuffed animals typical of Michigan woods and fields prowl the glass fiber reinforced concrete "rocks" around the waterfall. The animals give visitors a lesson in local wildlife as they purchase equipment or climb the stairs to the refreshment area in a rough-hewn lodge setting.

A few hundred feet away, a Rainforest Cafe entertains diners, shoppers and onlookers with its trademark aquariums. They contain tropical fish in rich colors that appear to defy nature, especially on a cold January day in the Midwest.

Aquariums of all shapes and sizes are making their way into retail settings even in parts of the world where beautiful salt-water fish live naturally.

"We are providing two aquariums for a new duty-free mall in the Grand Cayman Islands," says Diana Pulice, vice president and project manager with Living Color Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "One is a 10,000-gallon, 30-foot shark tank, the second is an 8-foot-tall cylindrical tank for reef fish.

"We are using new fabrication for the reefs, using lighter-weight zoopoxy (a type of epoxy) instead of fiberglass," she adds.

"Aquariums intrigue people," she continues. They are very relaxing and colorful, and they make people feel good. They also tend to cause visitors to linger - which is a primary goal.

The Larson Co. in Tucson, Ariz., has provided glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) natural settings complete with rocks and trees to museums, science centers, resorts, restaurants, casinos and retail stores for several decades. Molded from the real things, these GFRC forms must be able to withstand the rigors of actual wildlife in aquariums and zoos, for example.

As demand and product size grew, companies developed different production methods, reports Brian Leonard, project manager with Larson. One of them is to build a primary structure of heavy steel, cover it with a secondary metal that gives the general shape of the creation, and finally shoot concrete onto it. The surface can then be carved.

"We supplied 50-foot banyon trees for the front entrance of the new Sunset Place mall in Miami," says Leonard. "These are made of steel armature with an epoxy texture that is carved to resemble the trees. The trees are part of the signage for the new shopping mall."

"Whether the elements are 50-foot trees or the heads of monsters from Grimms Fairy Tales, it's important to attract attention and get people into the mall or shopping center," says Rich Dowd, spokesman for Foam Technology Symmetry Products in North Providence, R.I.

"Themed retail may affect big-box stores and, from there, continue on to interest specialty stores," he says. "Any type of shopping center will need to have a theme just to attract customers and spike interest."

Icons and signs also are a less expensive yet effective way to get attention. "I have a tendency to tell people not to overdo it," he adds. "Perhaps one 3-D icon on the front of a store is enough. It could cost $5,000 to $10,000."

Have fun, buy stuff The synergy between entertainment and retailing continues to thrive. Early success of the Airtight Garage video arcade at Sony's Metreon entertainment center in San Francisco has prompted a second center, this one in Tokyo, to add an Airtight Garage.

Slated to open this spring, the six-story entertainment center will have a Garage plus theaters, restaurants and retail. Sunbelt Scenic Studios of Tempe, Ariz., designed and produced the otherworldly sets for both Garages.

Douglas Knab, president of Sunbelt Scenic Studios, says retailers, as well as museums, ballparks and airports, will have to use unique signage, activities and icons to attract visitors.

"Everything must be themed," says Knab, whose 120 associates are adept at designing and building just about any kind of set or signage for venues, from new product introductions to entertainment retail.

Nearby, in Sunbelt Scenic Studio's backyard, Dillon Works of Mukilteo, Wash., recently helped rejuvenate the Fiesta Mall in Mesa, Ariz. Working with Callison Architecture, Dillon Works transformed three huge pillars at a mall entrance into giant desert flowers.

"We constructed steel and fiberglass flowers painted to replicate a desert-like patina," says Mike Dillon, company chief. "One of them was 20 feet in diameter."

In another example of silk purse out of a sow's ear, Dillon Works, with its "we make weird stuff" tagline, turned concrete columns in a former parking garage into stylized pier pilings. The setting here was the Ala Moana Mall in Honolulu, which, like Fiesta Mall, needed some updating.

"The Ala Moana was expanding its food court into an area that had been designated for parking," says Dillon. Partnering again with Callison Architecture out of Seattle, Dillon Works turned columns into a banyan tree walkway. Stylized panels represented branches on the trees.

In the food court, stylized fish sculptures appear to float high up under the skylight. At lengths ranging from 9 to 12 feet and weighing up to 50 pounds each, the translucent glass-and-steel fish evoke wildlife from the waters in and around Hawaii.

Not all climates are as ambient as Hawaii. Those who crave warm, flowing water but reside in the upper Midwest can pack their bags any time of year and head for indoor waterparks. The parks are beginning to include retail components, restaurants and hotels where families can turn a cold and soggy March weekend into a mini-vacation.

Themescapes of St. Paul, Minn., provides artificial rocks and trees and even giant African masks for waterparks and outdoor settings for retailers such as Cabela's. The natural environs help the company sell its hunting and fishing gear.

Jerry Anderson of Themescapes says these oases are popping up in small cities like East Grand Forks, N.D., Mitchell, S.D., Prairie du Chien, Wisc., and in the Wisconsin Dells.

Icons delight eyes Dillon Works' 5-foot, bright red Mr. Jelly Belly has helped FAO Schweez peddle sugary delights in downtown Chicago since 1997. Jelly Belly iconography has since expanded to Jelly Belly characters in a chorus line, reports Dillon.

Scenery West has helped an upscale West Coast sunglass retailer employ a different type of icon. Shoppers at California's Irvine Spectrum Mall step into Oakley Sunglasses' flagship store through an entryway marked by a 16-foot-tall industrial sunglass sculpture. Surrounding the front doors and piercing the glass on either side, the worn metallic finish of the sculpture draws attention to the store, with its lines of apparel and accessories accompanying designer sunglasses.

"The interior space is broken up by a number of abstract shapes that follow the motif of the entry icon," says Scenery West spokesman Tim Knipe in North Hollywood, Calif. Merchandise is displayed on brushed aluminum shelving and floors are distressed concrete. In addition, there are three seats extracted from a retired B-52 bomber.

The abstract, aged metal has become a kind of trademark for the company.

It's a way for customers to remember and describe the Oakley Sunglasses store. "It creates a specific environment," Knipe adds. "The setting evolves from the product and its story line."

The play's the thing Children's play areas continue to evolve, becoming increasingly attractive, with bright colors and soft, safe equipment. The areas are picking up on themes and, in many cases, are educational.

Take the mini airport at the Dulles Town Center, outside the infamous beltway that surrounds metropolitan Washington, D.C. Here, friendly, plastic ground traffic controllers help small travelers navigate a playground, including a bright red mini plane, a baggage hauling truck and a control tower.

Airport props were produced by NBGS International of New Braunfels, Texas. Company spokesman Scott Nisson says NBGS also is preparing an entomologist's delight with a buggy play area under construction for the new Galleria at Roseville in Roseville, Calif.

"There will be an anthill kids can crawl through," says Nisson. "A caterpillar archway serves as an entrance to the area." His company is also designing a play area for a new mall slated for the west Michigan city of Muskegon, on Lake Michigan. The mall will feature canoes, a lighthouse and tents for kids - all carrying out the mall's Great Lakes theme.

"Increased theming helps draw families," Nisson asserts.

Foam Technology Symmetry Products, which recently supplied a New Jersey shopping site with a soft log play arena for kids, says its business has doubled in the past two years.

"People work much harder than they did 10 or 20 years ago," says Dowd. "They want to be entertained during their time away from work. If you had a choice between a traditional shopping center and one with entertainment, you'd likely pick the latter."

Dr. Seuss characters like the Cat in the Hat and settings like Mulberry Street come alive in the new themed retail stores at Universal Studios' Escape Islands of Adventures in Orlando. AAD of Scottsdale, Ariz., guided the design and construction of some 15 retail stores at this popular central Florida family entertainment site. The Nassal Co. of Orlando designed and constructed 44 oversized food, beverage and retail kiosks for Seuss Landing.

AAD Director of Business Development Don Hasulak says one of the company's newer projects, Fox Sports sportsbars, are capturing the imaginations of grown-up kids. Fox Sports bars have the look and feel of a broadcast studio. Filled with appropriate icons, chrome and continuous broadcasts of sporting events, the new bars, slated for rollouts in airports, are drawing crowds willing to wait up to four hours to slip in for a drink.

Must be plugged in To ignore electronics is to ignore the future, say the experts.

With this in mind, companies like ITEC Entertainment Corp. in Orlando, Fla., are offering their clients state-of-the-art audio and video.

ITEC is providing new generation Foot Locker stores with in-store broadcasts that can be tailored to not only the individual store but also its shopping traffic. That is, an audio-video message for Thursday morning consumers may differ from that for the Saturday afternoon crowd.

"It doesn't have to be a play loop," says Dena O'Malley, marketing manager with ITEC Entertainment.

Foot Locker stores with ITEC Network systems have a video wall with three high-mounted monitors on either side of the large screen. "Video is accompanied by dynamic lighting and digital audio to create a high-impact shopping environment," she says.

A global broadcasting system uses the Internet to deliver custom entertainment, retail branding and targeted product merchandising. Laserdiscs, CDs and videocassettes are a thing of the past.

Cosmetics retailer newcomer Sephora also employed ITEC Network for its Rockefeller Center site, O'Malley reports.

"Electronic displays direct messages to who is there at the time," says Garth Ruchin, marketing specialist with Federal Sign in Seattle. "Video signage markets directly to the consumer."

Static signs will always be around, Ruchin adds.

Federal Sign cites the following among its newest theming projects: Universal Studios Citywalk in Burbank, Calif., due to open this spring; the Hollywood Highland development in Hollywood, Calif.; and Desert Passage outside the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. All are exciting entertainment-retail projec ts in which the company will be, or already is, involved.

The projects will offer a total experience through a themed environment. "It's different from entertainment thrown into malls," Ruchin says.

TPR Enterprises Ltd., in Mamaroneck, N.Y., is plugging in retailers in a different way. TPR President Thomas Fay, whose background is in theatrical lighting, is delighted that special effects lighting has spilled over into restaurants and retail.

"It makes it much more exciting," says Fay. "Just putting merchandise on the shelf doesn't cut it anymore." Fiber optic lighting also is what's behind starry firmaments of twinkling lights in dramatic lingerie departments, he reports. Such lighting has been on the scene for some time in museums, on cruise ships, on stage and in restaurants.

Side-illuminating fiber optics now create lights that look like neon, Fay reports. A cable connects to an illuminator; there is no electricity running through the flexible, unbreakable tubes. Benefits include cooler lights, the ability to change colors (which neon cannot) and easier maintenance.

"Because there is no heat from fiber optics, merchandise like leather goods won't be discolored or dried out," he says. As such, cool-burning fiber optics would be well suited to lighting cosmetic cases and displays of chocolates.

No end in sight Jack Rouse is willing to challenge some of the conventional thinking. The Cincinnati designer says the expression "experience economy" has been overworked.

"We've been creating experience ever since Walt Disney built Anaheim," says Rouse. Actually, he says, we repackage ideas that date to classical Greece.

"The idea is to create an out-of-home experience. People need a reason to leave their homes," he continues.

Rouse says an important ingredient to any experience is emotional attachment. He cites the way the new Conseco Arena and sports complex in downtown Indianapolis has successfully touched Hoosiers' ingrained love of basketball. The Pacers' home, with activities like a free-throw contest for visitors, and with retail components including a Starbucks coffee bar, already has increased the length of visitor stays by two-and-a-half to four hours.

"If you could cookie cutter it, why go?" he asks. "This emotional experience is inherent in the personality of the Pacers team. If this complex would work everywhere, it would be doomed."

In Burbank, Calif., Warner Bros. Studio Stores' George Jones, president of leasing and consumer products, has other musts on his list as he seeks to update the company's retail stores and re-ignite interest in customers who may have seen it all. The former Target executive says it's important for retail operations to be unpredictable.

"In the past, we have been predictable," says Jones. "More than 85% of our merchandise was Looney Tunes. Now it's less than 50%."

"For Father's Day last year, stores replaced a cartoon-character theme with Austin Powers. It was a big hit," he continues. Pokemon and superheroes Batman and Superman now occupy some retail space formerly relegated to Bugs Bunny and his cohorts.

Although the company has what Jones calls "great retail locations," he says another strategy may be to downsize underperforming stores, likely from the average 8,000 sq. ft. to 6,000 sq. ft. or 4,000 sq. ft. The company has tested smaller prototype stores and found them successful.

Jones wants the answer to be "yes" when shoppers approaching Warner Bros. Studio Stores wonder, "Do they have anything new there?"

Creating a mood "People will always want to experience environments and other people," contends Oldham. Internet shopping doesn't satisfy the need to touch merchandise, enjoy an unusual setting or be with people. "What we see now in themed retail is only the tip of the iceberg," he says.

While it can produce winning designs for more traditional entertainment-retail projects like Citywalk, adjacent to MCA's Universal Studios Florida in Orlando, Dallas-based Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum(H.O.K.) is creating cutting-edge retail centers for two sites in Japan.The Fu kuoka project (Marina Town Center) in southern Japan incorporates an American southwest theme, says John Low, H.O.K. vice president.

"We took the best of what we found in Santa Fe, N.M., and applied it to this project. We used the subtle coloration and forms of the buildings."

Different-size luminaries of stainless steel light building perimeters at the 450,000 sq. ft. upscale center. Mall directories, directing shoppers to tenants as diverse as a supermarket, health club and electronics stores, are on southwestern-like rocks.

"Our Osaka project is more abstract - it involves managing color and light," Low says. "Here, we tried to keep away from the literal. We wanted it to be timeless."

The 1 million sq. ft. mall comprises three courtyards. In one, there is an abstract aquarium - home to a 4-foot fish. The second and third courtyards capture the essence of Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall and the lights and energy of Manhattan - a favorite city among many Japanese.

On another note, Low observes, "Japanese clients and developers seem more willing to spend money."

But more is not necessarily better. At every level, theming must enhance the core product, not distract from it, says Rouse.

"It involves the translation of things from one dimension into another medium, like a novel becoming a Broadway play and then a movie." o

The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) is an international alliance of the world's most experienced professionals in the leisure entertainment industry today. Based in Burbank, Calif., its 625+ members and their companies have played key roles in the development and production of the most successful theme parks, entertainment centers, museums and themed hotels, casinos, restaurants and retail on the planet.

As the much-touted "Experience Economy" comes of age, the TEA finds itself playing an ever-increasing role in setting the standards for the industry. The association conducts educational seminars, holds networking events and serves as a single marketing entity for its diverse membership.

Membership in the TEA is open to individuals, companies and organizations who provide unique or custom designs, products and services to the themed entertainment, restaurant, retail, leisure and recreation industries.

Prospective applicants must be referred by two current TEA members before being considered by the TEA Membership Committee and the TEA Board of Directors. Applications are presented for approval on a monthly basis.

Membership in the TEA comes complete with a wide array of member benefits:

* TEA website: The Internet home of the TEA, featuring a searchable members directory, the most complete online listing of jobs in the themed entertainment industry, links to the hottest industry news stories, a calendar of events and more. Each member's website is "hot linked" to the online members directory allowing easy access for potential clients around the world.

* The TEA Magazine: An informative publication distributed quarterly to all members, the TEA magazine presents all the latest association news as well as feature articles on the state of the industry - from an insider's point of view. TEA members receive a 50% discount on advertising rates.

* TEA Annual Members Directory: TEA Members Directory is sent free of charge to all current members in good standing. Members can purchase extra copies of the directory for a nominal fee.

* Educational Seminars and Speakers & Writers Bureau: Offered exclusively to our members, TEA Educational Seminars are a forum to invest in employee growth, as well as to provide an opportunity for busy professionals to learn new skills and keep abreast of the latest developments in the industry. Upcoming seminars are listed online and in direct mailings. TEA member companies can also draw upon a database of expert volunteer speakers in numerous disciplines.

* THEA Awards: The Themed Entertainment Association's THEA Awards Program was established in 1994 to honor excellence and outstanding achievement in themed entertainment design and production. It also promotes the recognition, discussion and public awareness of the arts and sciences of themed entertainment.

There are two major categories of THEA awards. The THEA Awards for Outstanding Achievement (AOA) are presented in various categories to either an individual achiever or a particular achievement for recent outstanding contributions to the themed entertainment industry. The prestigious THEA Lifetime Achievement Award is presented to an individual for their lifetime contribution to the industry.

Each honoree is presented with a statue of THEA, the Greek Goddess of the Dawn. The goddess symbolizes the form and substance of imagination, which is the cornerstone of an industry that turns fantasy into reality.

* Project Development Guidelines Book: A significant discount is available to members on "the industry bible for projects in the themed entertainment industry."

* Business Promotion & Sponsorship Opportunities: Built-in promotion opportunities for business are available through the numerous TEA event sponsorships offered throughout the year. TEA sponsors are recognized and given an opportunity to provide information on their company to attendees.

For a membership application or to learn more about joining the TEA, please contact the Themed Entertainment Association's international headquarters at (818) 843-8497, fax (818) 843-8477, or surf to www.themeit.com.