Korky Vann: At Ikea, The Store's A Stage

I've always thought of shopping as theater. The merchandise, the displays, the atmosphere and the interaction of staff and customers add up to live entertainment and a unique show each time.

I'm not alone in noticing the performance potential in retail environments.

Burberry introduced its "Retail Theatre" concept when they broadcast their 2011 Spring/Summer collection live and in 3-D from London to 25 of its flagship boutiques worldwide. The chain has continued to retrofit stores to provide multimedia environments for its customers.

"Burberry Retail Theatre is at the heart of our retail growth strategy," said Angela Ahrendts, Burberry chief executive officer, in a press release.

Transporting customers to another dimension is good for the bottom line, according to Nunwood, a research firm specializing in consumer behavior. Retailers who create a compelling sense of theater for their customers outperform competitors by an average of 10 percent when it comes to customer experience.

Take Trader Joe's. Nunwood noted in its 2012 Consumer Experience Excellence survey, that shoppers consistently reported that their 30-minute weekly shopping trips to the specialty grocery chain felt like 30-minute tropical vacations.

"Each [Trader Joe's] store is a stage set that would look at home on Broadway," the study reported.

That concept of store as stage — and more specifically, Ikea as stage — inspired the directors of Theatre 4, a New Haven-based, non-profit acting company that produces plays in unusual locations, to approach Ikea with a proposal.

"We thought that the store's showrooms were really like mini-sets," says Mariah Sage, one of the group's co-directors. "So we asked if we could put on a series of original plays in various locations throughout the store, while the store was open for business."

Dale Lehman, marketing and public relation manager for the New Haven store, was intrigued.

"I thought it was a fun concept," says Lehman. "And with IKEA, there's precedence for the idea of theater in the aisles."

Ikea sponsors the Web TV series, "Easy To Assemble," about a former actress who works in an Ikea store. In 2008, the Swedish corporation allowed comedian Mark Malkoff to live in the Paramus, N.J., store for a week and document his experience in a series of web videos.

Another Web series, "Ikea Heights" is a melodrama shot gorilla-style in the Burbank, Calif., Ikea. The company doesn't sanction the show, but it doesn't stop the filming.

"IKEA customers in Florida and Philadelphia IKEA stores have been surprised by flash mobs of opera singers," says Lehman. "Live theater seemed like a good next step."

After working through the details — plays would have to be open to the public, content would have to be G-rated (and not bash Ikea or its competitors), actors could not move merchandise or block aisles — a deal was made.

"We said yes," says Lehman.

Four regional playwrights took on the challenge of writing new 10-minute plays that take place somewhere in the showrooms of Ikea New Haven and 13 other Connecticut-based theater professionals acted in and produced the works.

Writers, actors and directors walked through the store and saw dozens of areas that could serve as sets.

"The furniture store's layout served as a unique inspiration," says Sage. "Plays take place in a living room, a bedroom, a nursery and an office. Between each performance, audience will move from set to set."

One of the playwrights, Jacques Lamarre, wrote "In the Garden of Sweden," an Adam-and-Eve tale set in the corporate offices of Ikae America. His play will be performed in the store's office furniture department.

"A snake-like woman, arrives with an apple cake rather than an apple and it goes on from there," says Lemarre. (One of Ikea's specialty desserts is a Swedish apple cake called "Appelkaka.") "The whole idea is fun and a great way to introduce people to theater."

Jake Jeppson's play, "For the Most Important People in the World," takes place in the children's area; MJ Kaufman's "Your Living Room Is Filled With Ghosts" will be in the living-room furniture section; and Andra Vebell's "Housewives of Corinth" will be performed in the bedroom furnishings area.

"Have you ever wondered who might live in those rooms in the IKEA showroom?" asks Mariah Sage. "Now we're going to find out."

Theater 4 presents the four 10-minute comedies at Ikea New Haven, 450 Sargent Drive, on April 9, 10 and 11. Audience check-in begins at 6 p.m., with final arrival by 6:45 p.m. Plays begin at 7 p.m. The event is free, but reservations are required since audience space is limited. To reserve tickets, go to Theatre 4's website at http://www.t4ct.org.

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