Stepping between worlds

Stage design and store entrances

How should you arrange your doorway or entrance, to make customers step inside - or feel they want to? You have two main choices, and to understand them we need a little bit of - you guessed it - theater theory.

In the theater, we usually talk about two main types of stage – the proscenium stage and the thrust (or "apron") stage.

A thrust stage is a stage that juts out into the audience area - your Milan fashion catwalk is an extreme example. They have been around for a long time, and arch-luvvie Bill Shakespeare used them every day. For actors, they are great - you can go deep into the audience, talk to individual punters, make very natural “asides”, and literally share the audience's point of view of the rest of the action. This is why many actors love thrust stages – your contact to the audience is very direct indeed.

A proscenium stage is that “typical” type of stage which has a straight, relatively high front edge and a big archway over the front (think, “Punch and Judy”, think “red curtain”). They have been around since the 17th century and promote a strong feeling of separation from the audience – sitting in your seat in the darkness you feel you are looking into another world. That big, heavy proscenium arch acts as a mighty metaphorical barrier which gets turtle-necked theatrical types clutching their brows and pronouncing on “fourth walls”.

The crucial factor here is the way the physical layout of the stage and the boundary between stage and audience encourages – or discourages – us to cross the line and interact with the other side.

Our first type of stage, the thrust design, builds a weak barrier between stage and audience, one we cross willingly. The stage starts low, reaches towards us, builds slowly in height, and is mostly open to the sky – we might say it is literally “laid back”. This thrust shape is ideal for locations which need people to wander in – like many retail sites.

So, to use the apron effect in your retail site , you start low by using a long, low front step or a carpet on the sidewalk. Stepping onto the carpet or step, your customer is psychologically partly inside the store. Soon they find themselves surrounded by your stuff, whether it be pot plants or products displays. Remember to start low and build in height, and remember that whatever is outside the store (carpet, mannequins) should continue inside it – and that means the same colour carpet, the same style of displays.

We are trying to make the moment of stepping through the doorway into a non-event, so the customer finds himself or herself inside the store. The ceiling must close over our head as late as possible, and should have no heavy lintel pressing down on the customer – if your location has one, drape light-coloured cloth from outside to inside, softening the effect.

The proscenium model – a heavy, almost forward-leaning entrance – can bully and intimidate, and you should avoid it like you avoid bad Belgian dance theater if you are trying to tempt in casual shoppers. That weighty, brooding archway and the vertical orientation of the whole thing build a powerful psychological barrier.

But it would be wrong to think that this type of entrance is useless. No indeed. Back in the fourth paragraph (remember the fourth paragraph?) we said that proscenium stages are really good at separating two worlds. If your offering is an escapist one, and if your public has already been sold on the idea of visiting you, then a big impressive proscenium entrance might be just what you need to let them know they are leaving the real world behind, and get them really looking forward to the experience in those last few hundred steps. Alternatively, it could make confident customers curious to find out what is behind. So for a nightclub, spa, sports location, park, or a really hot boutique, this might be the look to go for.

Make the entrance high and overhanging and have it stand physically forward. If you can’t afford a builder, you can do a lot with curtains, flags, roll-ups, flames, and that criss-cross scaffolding you see holding up the lights at rock concerts.

Whether you choose the laid-back apron model, or the imposing proscenium design, remember that the next thing your customers see should be a hot highlight, deeper inside the location...

PS for UX folks. This applies equally well to website design. Think about these forms and ask yourself - how would you design a site that is an imposing "proscenium" gateway into an exclusive world? Or one that has the user gently "finding himself" going deeper into the site, almost without noticing it..?


Anonymous said...

This is brilliant lateral thinking, Adam. Your cross-disciplinary thinking is as interesting as anything I've read, anywhere -- and this entry really takes the cake. I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post! This is right-on! Theater is a great example. Acting troupes have always been subject to "discressionery spending" patterns. Unlike the staples of bread and rice, you don't need to go to the theater to survive. Since actors study human nature, theirs is an impecible example of how to entice and lure people in and keep them engaged! They are a great example of what to do.

Here in my town, a feature in setting the tone and enticing people is via the external lighting. Theater folk are great at lighting. Sometimes dramatic, sometimes subdued and romantic - but it is part of the theater's language- the language of light. Something to consider as well.

Another aspect of this conversation is having a "consistant voice". From the advertising to the playbill to the parking lot to the experience itself - all being consistant and unified to the customer to keep them in a "vibe" that you are setting. This is harder to control, say in the parking lot, but you do not want a sense of betrayal on the part of the customer.

An upcoming example, in the US, in Mother's Day. Our location is a prime Mother's Day destination, and families expect to have a beautiful, serene time - but we have thousands of people all coming at once! Imaging our parking lot! On an average day we do not have parking attendants - BUT ON MOTHER'S DAY, WE MOST CERTAINLY DO... because we cannot errode serenity in the parking lot! Getting them in the door starts as they turn into our parking lot on that day, and we will spend the money to insure a quality of experience for our customers.

Thanks for your thoughts, Adam!

Adam StJohn Lawrence. said...

Thanks for the kind words, both of you!

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