>From interactive kiosks to virtual arcades, retail design can create themed, extra-sensory experiences for people of all ages.

If retail design is a well-oiled machine, then theming and interactivity can be considered its funky enamel paint job. And with theming, interactivity and retail now operating so closely in line, it may someday be impossible to imagine one without the other.

For the moment, interactivity and theming at the retail level remain an unencumbered art in which design possibilities are governed only by one's imagination. Will this relationship continue to jump-start retailing into the next millennium? Will it continue to make shopping fun for theconsumer, and profitable for the merchant?

Shopper magnets For the answer, one need only examine how shoppers are drawn out of their homes if they have an exciting place in which to shop. Retail design -- as well as shopping center owners attempting to find the next-biggest anchor tenant -- have responded to that need by injecting theming and interactivity into their retail environments.

For example, Ontario Mills in Ontario, Calif., houses a number of themed, interactive shopper magnets, including Dave & Busters, GameWorks, an AMC 30-plex and an UltraScreen theater, Virgin MegaStore, and American Wilderness Experience. At the store level, Hollywood continues to swing a mighty retail arm, with highly themed concepts from Viacom, Disney, Warner Bros. and MGM, among others.

"It's the next big wave," affirms Mark Stutz, creative producer at Universal City, Calif.-based Sega GameWorks. "It succeeds in attracting people and keeping them entertained so that they will spend more on food and drink, activities and products," he says.

GameWorks' high-energy arcades typically attract visitors in the 18-to-35 age range, as well as families with children. GameWorks sets its simulator games, coffee bar, Internet lounge and retail store in a unique, warehouse-like design, encouraging interaction among patrons.

The layout for GameWorks -- both at Ontario Mills and at GameWorks' other locations -- are made up of three neighborhoods designed by North Hollywood, Calif.-based Scenery West. They include the "Loading Dock," a high-energy zone for hard-core game players; the "Arena," which combines the high-tech charge of video games with the excitement of theme park-style attractions; and the "Loft," which serves as a more relaxed environment for patrons who want to enjoy a mug of coffee or surf the Internet.

Highly themed images also charge the retail environment of Zero Gravity, a fast-growing chain featuring futuristic and unusual products. Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based Visionz-Daddona provided the unusual props and displays for the gift shop and its Virtual Cafe. Also, Visionz incorporates large-scale holography as part of its palette of traffic-stopping, themed concepts.

Edward Rosenberg, president of Visionz, agrees that theming is not a temporary shift in the wind. "The buzz word at this year's ICSC [International Council of Shopping Centers] show was 'Theming,'" he says. In Rosenberg's estimation, theming can generate excitement, create a sense of place, and increase traffic, visitation time, frequency and gross revenues, resulting in higher occupancy and higher return to the landlord.

Rosenberg notes that luring potential patrons repeatedly out of their homes and into stores, theaters and restaurants is a major merchandising operative today. Theming and interactivity, he says, have helped bring people back into shopping centers. "The drudgery has to be taken out of shopping [for patrons to return]," he says.

Eyes wide open Jeffrey Minton, president of Knoxville-based Bullock Smith & Partners, says entertainment and thematic design heightens shoppers' sensory experiences. "After all, what is architecture but the manipulation of space to promote an emotional experience for the viewer," he says, adding that keeping shoppers' eyes wide open should be any designer's modus operandi.

"Interactivity is about getting people to respond. Whether it's the pleasant attitude of the salesperson or background music or terrific props, the end result is the same: The visitor is engaged in an emotionally reactive experience, and that involvement encourages their spending," he says.

In addition to grand-scale attractions that spark shopper interest, shopping centers also are incorporating accessibility into their entertainment options. Interactive, touch-screen kiosks are proving to be a hot promotional medium, packing a lot of animated user options into a small space. For example, at the 150-store Great Mall of the Great Plains in Olathe, Kan., promotional, information kiosks have been installed by New York-based RVI/Rutt Video Interactive Inc.

Created by computer inventor Steve Rutt, the kiosks use a large display monitor and a touch screen to promote stores and their products. Rutt has teamed with former store planner and designer Dorothy Pentzke, president of New York-based Pentzke Group, who has identified cosmetics companies and high-traffic locations such as airports for the RVI system. "Each remote terminal functions as an automated sales representative that can answer a multitude of consumer queries," she says.

A joint project between Fort Worth, Texas-based RadioShack and ZTV (a division of Ridgefield, Conn.-based Muzak IMG) has produced a similar interactive, revenue-generating product for RadioShack patrons. The result is RadioShack Television Network (RSTV), which offers customized programming of current music videos, sport highlights, celebrity interviews and other features interspersed with 30-second commercials for RadioShack products.

Gary Henderson, president of Muzak IMG's in-store marketing group, describes his firm's services as "electronic visual merchandising." Customers can scan products' bar codes at a viewing station -- a kiosk-mounted, eye-level, 25-inch screen -- and view an audio-visual teaser for the products as well as cross-merchandising messages suggesting other titles and related products.

"This is absolute interactivity," says Henderson. "Customers get a hands-on feel for the store's content and can educate themselves about a specific product. At the same time, it takes [in-store marketing] to the next level of technology."

Otherworldly retail concepts In the anything-goes, oasis-like environment of Las Vegas, themed retail has reached new proportions. Hollywood & Grand, with locations at MGM Grand Hotel and McCarran International Airport, features holographic "greeters" at their entrances. Developed by Pasadena, Calif.-based C&J Partners, the 5-ft.-high holograms comprise moving and talking images of famous cinematic celebrities, with full lighting and a story script.

C&J president Scott Kohno describes the 7,000 sq. ft. MGM store as a natural extension of world-famous MGM brand name. Store inventory turnover is reportedly brisk, as merchandise is stocked to coincide with the performances of major entertainers at the MGM. Basic store items include products identified with MGM properties, such as Popeye, Betty Boop and the Wizard of Oz.

If Las Vegas visitors eventually suffer from the "Been-there, done-that" syndrome, they have many other options to whet their appetite. The Giza Galleria at the Luxor Hotel stretches 30,000 sq. ft. and embodies a re-creation of ancient Egyptian splendor. The project features reproductions of Egyptian antiquities as accents for various store categories, which offer bath and body care products, children's toys, Las Vegas themed souvenirs and a branch of Bernini's.

Richard Lewis, president of Los Angeles-based TSL Design Group and designer for Giza Galleria, also is installing SpaceQuest Casino at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel. The 25,000 sq. ft. gaming center features three synchronized rear screen projectors displaying images of space shuttles on trips to Earth, as well as other simulated views from a residential space station.

"The direction these two projects exemplify is what I call 'immersive environments,'" says Lewis, who is the current international president of the Institute of Store Planners. "Successful applications of interactivity at the retail level help to establish the brand and sell its image. If people are entertained and informed by their interactive experiences, they will come back."

Theming invades Manhattan On the other side of the continent, New York shoppers are enjoying themed retail in the vicinity of 57th Street and Madison Avenue. There, Swatch and Sony integrate their widely known products with customized interfaces.

For the Timeship, Swatch's 5,000 sq. ft. flagship store, the design firm of Pentagram drew on a technique long-used by manufacturing plants to transport items from one area to another by an internal pneumatic tube system. Pentagram converted this utilitarian process into a see-through, in-store delivery system. Four-inch diameter glass tubes snake through the three-story building, delivering customer's watches in stainless steel tubes.

Architect James Biber of Pentagram's New York office and Daniel Weil of the firm's London office collaborated in adapting the early 19th century industrial technique into a late 20th century, interactive merchandising concept. The speed of the tubes transporting the product is centrally controlled, moving Swatches along at 6 to 10 ft. per second.

Buyers can have their purchases delivered to them anywhere in the store, including the coffee bar. Well-protected by their sturdy packaging and construction, Swatches have no trouble in navigating the vacuum tube course.

Down the block at Sony Plaza, sales have increased 40 percent in the Sony Style department following the addition of a Starbucks Coffee installation, outfitted with two Sony listening stations. Harlan Bratcher, senior vice president and general manager of Sony Plaza, reports that partnering the two brands has been "very successful."

Starbucks patrons can access Sony Style's CD library and preview titles before purchasing. The 2,300 sq. ft. Starbucks attraction represents approximately 20 percent of Sony Plaza's overall GLA and approximately the same percentage of its sales.

Hot on the horizon Theming and interactivity, say many in the industry, are more than safety nets for conventional retail -- they are a response consumer demand for bigger, better shopping experiences.

Henderson of Muzak asserts that theming and interactivity will continue to show their colors well into the next millennium. "This is where retailing is going. It's red hot," he says.

Bratcher agrees. "We are entering the era of active retailing," he says. "With the number of choices that consumers are offered today, it's up to the retailer to help them feel comfortable using the products on the sales floor."

The hot retail trend of highly themed retail environments, says TSL's Lewis, will help stimulate shoppers and build brand awareness. Eye-popping, themed design, he says, will continue its dominance as long as shoppers respond with their dollars.

"Successful applications of interactivity at the retail level help to establish the brand and sell its image," he says. "If people are entertained and informed by their interactive experiences, they will come back."

And come back they have, say many retailers and center owners. If theming and interactivity in design can bring patrons back into the stores of today and tomorrow, the gears of the well-oiled retail machine will continue to run smoothly.

Vilma Barr is a New York-based freelance writer.