Features | From Pivot Magazine

Why retailers are turning shopping spaces into selfie sets

Instagram-optimized pop-ups are drawing huge crowds across North America 

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Two people at the Dr. Seuss Experience at Suare One mall in Mississauga, Ont.The Dr. Seuss Experience at Square One mall in Mississauga, Ont. (Photograph courtesy of @shopsquareone/Instagram)

The recently opened Dr. Seuss Experience in Mississauga, Ont., thousands of bright pink, oversized plastic clovers sprout up from the floor. Much like in the children’s book, one petal on one blossom contains a miniscule cluster of mythical Whos, all crying out for attention. As stroller-pushing parents and their children make their way through the flowers, they hush to find the source of the noise. Once located, they invariably pose for selfies with the Whos in front of the botanical backdrop, then move on to other rooms that bring the stories of Dr. Seuss to life, including a space filled with Sneetches and another with balloons.   

Along the way, the organizers—Oxford Properties, a Canadian real estate investment firm, and Kilburn Live, a California entertainment company—hope families post lots and lots of photos on Instagram. The more social media activity, the more people are likely to come and buy a $29 admission ticket. That’s what’s in it for Kilburn. But the stakes are higher for Oxford Properties, which manages Square One, the shopping centre where the 36,000-square-foot Dr. Seuss Experience is located.

The Seuss setup forms a critical piece of the mall owner’s long-term strategy to bolster foot traffic and sales by providing unique, social media-worthy events, not just shopping. “Thirty years ago, even five years ago, a shopping mall wouldn’t have been this focused on experience,” says Greg Taylor, Square One’s director and general manager. “The pace with which retail is changing is pushing us to appeal to people in different ways, offering a more rounded experience that also includes entertainment.” 

Although Square One draws more than 24 million shoppers per year and generates $1,087 in revenue per square foot—it’s one of only two malls in Canada that tops $2 billion in revenue per year, the other being Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre—the future of traditional retail looks bleak. Over the past five years, sales in Canadian malls have flatlined: Between 2014 and 2015, average sales per square foot grew by nearly eight per cent, from $689 to $743; by 2017-2018, growth was down to 1.3 per cent. As consumers continue to gravitate online, the list of bricks-and-mortar shops filing for bankruptcy keeps getting longer—Mexx, Forever 21, American Apparel, Payless. While only seven per cent of shopping was done over the internet in 2017 and 9.5 per cent in 2019, that number is expected to reach 20 per cent by 2025. To put Square One’s success in perspective, consider that its revenues grew 2.14 per cent between 2017 and 2018, roughly in line with inflation. Over the same period, Amazon’s revenues grew more than 30 per cent. 

Many have pegged online shopping as the death knell of malls, but another digital tool—social media—is providing physical retailers with a way to fight back. Instagram-optimized pop-ups like the Dr. Seuss Experience have been drawing huge crowds across North America over the past few years. New York City’s Museum of Ice Cream earned visits from Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian and more than US$20 million in admissions revenues between 2016 and 2018 as guests paid US$38 each to pose in front of sherbet-hued displays. Before launching in Toronto last year, the Happy Place toured Los Angeles and Chicago, where it drew more than 200,000 people. 

Woman walking through the balloon room at the Dr. Seuss ExperienceThe balloon room at the Dr. Seuss Experience (Photo courtesy of @rvansnick/Instagram)

Pushing off against the success of those standalone pop-ups, retailers are finding ways to leverage Instagrammers’ pursuit of novel selfies. Last year, American Eagle incentivized customers to take a photo of themselves in changing room mirrors by promising to use the most model-like poses in an ad campaign. Likewise, Cadillac Fairview created custom photo filters to entice people to come to the 2018 tree lighting at Toronto’s Eaton Centre. 

Those campaigns, it seems, are worth the effort. According to Hootsuite, a social media management company, 60 per cent of Instagram users use the app to seek out new products. That’s why retailers readily shell out for sculptural, over-the-top installations that bring people in to take lots of photos. At many Sugarfina stores, the California-based candy shop devotes one wall to an intricate installation of hand-cut paper flowers. Twenty per cent of in-store Instagram photos feature the wall, which has Sugarfina’s name emblazoned in the middle, and often a carefully placed display of sweets to one side. 

Still, investing in elaborate selfie sets comes with risks. The once iconic, now struggling Macy’s launched a Seuss-like Story pop-up at the Manhattan flagship in 2019. The colour-coded gallery was a photo draw, but in-store sales—and the company’s stock valuation—still slid over the next six months. “The risk with creating something just for Instagram is that people will simply come, take their picture and leave,” says David Ian Gray, the Vancouver-based founder and strategist at DIG360, a national retail advisory firm. “The key is to reach the customers who genuinely want your products—people who will stay, shop and buy. It’s important to tailor the Instagram activation to the specific interests and desires of that audience and to the audience they are sharing the images with.” To put it simply, it makes sense to hang an impressive knit tapestry on a wall in a knitting store, less so in a vape shop or cheese boutique.

Like the Story pop-up, the Dr. Seuss Experience has drawn traffic. Weeks before opening, the first few days sold out in spite of the price tag. “The Dr. Seuss Experience at Square One is very clever,” says David Soberman, Canadian national chair in strategic marketing at the Rotman School of Management. “It mainly appeals to young kids. Children aren’t necessarily on social media, but their 20- and 30-something parents are all over Instagram and want to take pictures of their little ones doing fun activities.”

Furthermore, 20- and 30-somethings are among the hardest demographic to get into a shopping mall these days. Almost half still like to touch and feel products before purchase, but many value the convenience of e-tailers more. Not only is the Instagram event enticing them away from Amazon for an afternoon, it gives them easy access to more than 360 stores where they can see, touch and try out potential purchases—then ’gram themselves doing it. At least, that is, until their phone batteries run out.