HERE’S AN UNCONVENTIONAL solution for Hollywood’s box office problem: Redesign the multiplex.Bulldoze the thousands of poorly subdivided concrete boxes dotting America’s cities and suburbs; rebuild them as state-of-the-art retail and entertainment centers. Dim the garish lighting, plant new cars and other attractions in the lobbies; and customize the place by movie genre — date movies could be screened in theaters with love seats; teen movies could be screened in theaters that can be hosed down at the end of the night. I can’t take credit for these ideas. Most of them belong to Paco Underhill, author of “Call of the Mall” and a retail consultant who’s part of a new school of anthropologists and design critics who spend much of their time thinking about how and why we spend our recreational cash. Underhill is convinced that if exhibitors don’t put more equity into the experience of moviegoing, they’ll lose the war with the home entertainment market. “The closest analogy to a modern cineplex,” he told me, “is an airport where everybody has time, food and bathroom anxieties.” MOVIE THEATERS are beginning to resemble department stores, which for decades satisfied most of the world’s shopping needs. Today, department stores are fast giving way to national chains whose selection of goods and architectural design are much better calibrated to separate you from your money. Two forthcoming books on the retail world offer an eye-opening glimpse of this changing shoppingscape. “Retail” by Ian Luna reveals how luxury merchants have enlisted star architects to create ultrasophisticated shrines to conspicuous consumption — places like Rem Koolhaas Prada stores in New York and L.A. and Renzo Piano’s Hermes building in Tokyo, which resembles a giant yellow lantern. Luna’s most striking image is of the new Birmingham, England, outpost of Selfridges, the high-end London retailer, which looks like a pink, bejeweled blob poised to devour the city. While it’s quite an aesthetic achievement, it’s a commercial flop. But it sure looks awesome. The new edition of “Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands,” by Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide CEO Kevin Roberts, focuses on stores that he believes are especially adept at fostering an emotional bond between consumers and the brands they buy — a role once played by trusty department stores like Robinson’s May and Bullock’s (The last Robinson’s May store will disappear later this year). Roberts admires places like the Body Shop, Fnac in France and a chain of supermarkets outside Barcelona that offers a concierge service, Internet access, daycare, home repair help and cooking kits with ingredients and recipes tucked inside. ROBERTS, WHO ONCE machine-gunned a Coke machine at a Pepsi sales conference (“600 people hit the deck,” he told me), has a surprisingly heartfelt message for his readers: “Every store, every stall, every kiosk, every Web site needs to aspire to become a Lovemark to the shoppers it serves,” he wrote. Reached by phone in Auckland, New Zealand, he had plenty of research to back up this claim: 85% of purchasing decisions are made “emotionally not rationally,” he told me; more than 75% of actual purchasing decisions are made in store at the point of purchase. Every retail environment, Roberts said, should have three elements: mystery, sensuality and intimacy. Movie theaters are lacking in every way, he said. “They sell the same overpriced Coke and popcorn under the same overly bright lighting. Consumers are pissed off.” There are exceptions, to be sure. Pacific’s Hollywood ArcLight offers plenty of creature comforts to go with its state-of-the-art projectors, and it’s as crowded as ever. Other circuits are following suit. One chain, Muvico, is building 20-screen, Vegas-style movie palaces with restaurants and daycare facilities up and down the Eastern seaboard. But Roberts is right. Consumers are pissed off. Faced with rising ticket prices and 20 minutes of onscreen ads, it’s going to take more than stadium seating and free refills to win them back.
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