Thursday, November 23, 2006

Stores as Art

It was a little before nine in the morning, the cab for the airport was at 10:30, and my daughter needed a new pair of headphones, the old ones having died. I called a local electronics chain; the recorded message said they opened at ten. I called Fry’s. The voice at the other end of the phone informed me that they had opened at eight that morning. She sounded mildly surprised that I would ask.

While trying to decide which of ninety-seven different models of headphone to buy, I was also contemplating the nature of Fry’s. My conclusion was that Fry’s is best understood as a work of art. It combines an elaborate variety of features, from the hours it keeps to the flashing lights that notify you that a checkout clerk is free to the junk food in the checkout aisle, from the selection of goods to the d├ęcor—my local Fry’s flaunts an ancient egyptian theme—all designed to convey a single consistent feel, appeal to a particular sort of customers.

In the case of Fry’s, an electronics supermarket, the target is geeks. The whole ensemble is designed to make geeks, technophiles, feel at home, feel that this is their place. To fully explain how they do it I would probably have to be an artist capable of creating a similar work myself, and I’m not. But I am enough of a geek to recognize what they are doing and admire their skill in doing it.

Fry’s is merely the example ready to hand, since I live in Silicon Valley. If this piece were being written by my friend Steve Landsberg he would probably cite Wegman’s, a supermarket chain limited, so far as I know, to northern New York state. Steve can go on at some length about the MegaWegman stores that are the stars of the chain; he has been known to argue that the existence of Wegman’s is itself a sufficient reason to live in that part of the country.

There are, of course, many other examples—Apple stores surely qualify. In each case someone with artistic abilities much superior to mine has figured out to create an ensemble, a combination of aesthetics, products, marketing, that sends a consistent message. Properly viewed, it is a new art form, and one of considerable depth and subtlety.


M.C. said...

Tyler Cohen is always going on about Wegman's, so I suspect they extend at least as far south as D.C.

Anonymous said...

Somewhere, there is a designer/marketing executive weeping -- weeping -- in gratitude at this post.

Lester Hunt said...

In the artworld, works in this genre are called "installations": multi-media works that modify an environment to create an intended aesthetic effect. Objectively considered, I am sure some stores are better installations than some that can be found in art museums.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I've always thought of store design as a creative endeavor, but never quite twigged on it as it's own art form (when taken to these extremes).

My sister-in-law has recently switched from running restaurants to a job in management with Trader Joe's, which is another prime example of what you're talking about, as are a lot of popular restaurants, in fact.

It seems like almost any retail operation could be judged by the extent to which its primary target market would consider it "art" in this sense.


Anonymous said...

Wegmans now goes as far south as Northern VA, and has locations in all the states in between (PA, NJ, MD). Wegmans is a truly remarkable business model. I took a friend there and his reaction was "This is the Disneyland of food."

Anonymous said...

Oh, here's a personal Wegmans anecdote. It's about 8pm on a weekday and I'm working late (crunch time on the project). Producer says, let's get pizza. I say, ok, can we try Wegmans? I'll pick it up. Sure, he says.

So I go to and find the number for the Hunt Valley location. I call. Two rings, then a human being picks up and says "Wegmans Hunt Valley, how may I help you?"

I was so flabbergasted at not encountering an automated menu system that I was literally at a loss for words. It took me a couple of seconds to regain my equilibrium and ask for the pizza shop. I never had to push a button or listen to options during the entire call. It was refreshing.

John Fast said...

I'm curious what sort of esthetic WalMarts have, i.e. what sort of emotive effect, or "atmosphere," they produce. (I personally happen to be comfortable in the atmosphere -- sort of an "enemy of my enemy is my friend" effect, I think, since most of the people who dislike WalMart happen to be snobs and anti-globalization scum who don't really care if poor people in the third world starve or not.)

Hernan Coronel said...

I always tell my wife that stores are better than museums because you can actually BUY the items on display at a very reasonable price.