Dickson CyberExpress, where bricks & clicks converge

Many traditional retailers have embraced the click-and-mortar ethos, adopting virtual storefronts, Internet coupons and other web-based strategies. But Hong Kong-based retail mogul Dickson Poon recently took "clicks-and-mortar" to a new level, opening a virtual megastore that quite literally combines e-commerce with brick-and-mortar retail.

The 70,000-sq.-ft. project, Dickson CyberExpress, took nine months to design and install. It opened at Hong Kong's Kowloon Transit station - which draws some 2.2 million visitors each day - in September 2000. The goal was to tap the buying power of all those commuters by turning a relatively small space into the virtual equivalent of a 1 million-sq.-ft. regional mall.

You don't even have to be at Dickson CyberExpress to shop there. Web surfers can visit the virtual mall by logging on to www.DicksonCyber.com. Meanwhile, thanks to designers at Southfield, Mich.-based JGA Inc., real-world shoppers can count on plenty of flash and excitement.

Making the most of time and space Dickson CyberExpress includes six shopping zones, covering such categories as media (Entertainment World), computers/home electronics (E-World), children's games and toys (Kiddy World), apparel (Fashion World), beauty supplies (Cosmetic World) and athletic wear and supplies (Sports World). Each mixes display goods with intranet terminals, allowing customers to buy some items in-store and order others online.

JGA Chairman Ken Nisch describes these areas as a blend of traditional store and Internet portals. The online component allows CyberExpress to keep most of its "inventory" elsewhere, obviating the need for stockrooms - a huge advantage in Hong Kong, where real estate is precious. In addition to leveraging space, the online component makes the most of time, allowing consumers to shop at CyberExpress when most other businesses have closed.

But a row of terminals alone does not an exciting retail environment make. To add "wow," JGA worked with Media Projects International of London and the Hong Kong architectural office of Gensler International Ltd. to fit an attractive, dynamic environment into the space.

The goal, says Colin Payne of Media Projects International, was "the practical convergence of physical and virtual." Each "world" includes futuristic attractions that provide interactive entertainment for shoppers. In addition, CyberExpress uses kinetic, multicolored lighting in the midst of its glass-and-metal environment. Media and lighting consultant Illuminating Concepts of Farmington Hills, Mich., and lighting firm ColorKinetics of Boston helped create an ambience of constant change, which Nisch describes as "made fresh daily."

Dancers, fish and makeovers That freshness extends to the attractions. In Entertainment World, shoppers can morph their own facial images onto "Cyber Dancers" - robotic figures displayed on a plasma screen. The customer then selects music and makes the robot dance. Afterward, a copy of each dancer's show can be saved on a CD and sold for the shopper's repeat viewing at home.

In Kiddy World, children can mix and match fish parts in the "Cyberquarium," creating any of 8,000 possible virtual fish. After each fish is created, it can be saved in a database for the customer to visit and "feed" on subsequent trips to CyberExpress. Cuddly plush versions of popular fish designs are available to take home. In addition, kids of all ages can busy themselves with "Paint the World," where they can draw pictures that are projected onto a mesh globe, visible both inside and outside.

E-World features "Electronic Alley," a passageway flanked with touch-screen monitors and software demos. The cosmetic area mixes futuristic trees (complete with fiberoptic flower buds) with interactive virtual makeover stations. After a virtual makeover, customers can e-mail the images they've created, or print them out on keepsake magazine covers.

This kind of flash doesn't come cheap but was well worth the costs, Nisch says. Charged with creating an environment with all the energy of Hong Kong, designers were allowed to give their imaginations free rein.

Nisch believes similar ideas can be applied to other retail environments. "Lots of centers have found themselves with too few stores and too little space," he notes. "But if the storefront is an Internet portal, space doesn't matter." In the marriage of technology and traditional retail, what matters is imagination.