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In the new Williams-Sonoma Grande Cuisine stores, customers can spend hours trying out small electric kitchen gadgets at the electrics bar. They can stop by the tasting bar to sample an assortment of flavored oils. Or they can gather in the demonstration kitchen to see a cookbook author create a special recipe.

Book signings have hit new heights at Borders Books & Music. Last August, for example, a Dallas store in the chain hosted a combination book signing/costume party-prize contest/blood drive for devotees of famed horror author Anne Rice.

Teach & Play Smart, a fledgling retail chain based in Bedford, Texas, actively encourages young shoppers and their parents to interact with toys, games, books and software.

This is retailing in the mid-1990s: Customers want and expect shopping to be an event in and of itself.

"Department stores do have a problem with sameness in their merchandise," said Joe Feczko, senior VP-creative services for specialty apparel retailer Neiman Marcus.

Today's shoppers are looking for more than a wide selection of merchandise; they want pizzazz. They are willing to be educated, but first and foremost, they insist on being entertained.

"Shopping has evolved into a form of entertainment," said Donata Maggipinto, communications director for speciality cookware retailer Williams-Sonoma. "Customers want information, education and entertainment."

Specialty retailers are in the best position to respond quickly to this trend, said Dean Alstrup, president of Creative Retailing. His Irvine, Calif.-based consultancy has helped redesign more than 2,000 stores for apparel, automotive/motor sports, jewelry and housewares retailers.

Williams-Sonoma introduced the Grande Cuisine format in December 1994. These outlets are about 20% larger than the typical Williams-Sonoma shop. The Manhattan Grande Cuisine store that opened in September, for example, is 5,600 square feet. Eventually, all Williams-Sonoma outlets will be retrofitted or built around the Grande Cuisine format. The company currently has more than 130 cookware stores throughout the U.S. and 12 in Japan.

Williams-Sonoma markets primarily through its catalog, which is designed in-house. Recently, the marketer worked with Pentagram, an Austin, Texas, agency, on a pro ject basis to produce a color, six-page magazine insert for November issues of Food & Wine and Martha Stewart Living as well as the Nov. 5 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

Each page of the insert features a different kitchen implement that may be used to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Copy provides brief tips on how to use the item as well as an 800-number to call for the location of the nearest Grand Cuisine or to place an order.

Neiman Marcus also encourages customers to come to the store for more than just shopping. For example, the upscale retailer schedules lifestyle-oriented events, such as in-store breakfasts with a series of distinguished lecturers.

Mr. Feczko said that about a decade ago, Neiman Marcus made a major investment in a database that has enabled the store to determine very precisely who its customers are and to develop very close ties with them.

Direct mail, created in-house, is the foundation of all Neiman Marcus promotions. The retailer sends up to 50 pieces per year, with the mailing size ranging from 30,000 to 1 million.

Neiman Marcus supplements this with newspaper and radio to advertise events in the stores that are open to the public. Many events, however, are promoted solely through direct mail to preferred customers.

Borders Books & Music stores also seeks to develop its customer bases. To that end, every store dedicates one staff member as a full-time community relations coordinator. In addition to staging splashy periodic special events, coordinators are responsible for developing their store's image as a community center, where local customers can go to hear poetry readings and lectures, see demonstrations and attend children's programs.

"It's our job to figure out how to entertain, sustain and bring customers back," said Ron Stefanski, Borders Inc.'s director of merchandising.

Borders opens about 40 new stores per year, and the openings are promoted through a mixture of TV, radio, print and direct mail designed by its agency of record, Perich & Partners, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Borders is currently rolling out on a nationwide basis an ad campaign that broke last summer. It consists of two 30-second TV spots with the tagline: "Are you curious? Find out. Borders."

The company, with help from Perich, has designed templates for newspaper ads and newsletters that are customized by each local store. Mailing lists are developed locally by the stores from their customer database.

Teach & Play Smart also relies on direct mail as its most effective ad medium, although occasionally it supplements mailings with radio spots for a store opening.

Teach & Play Smart issues one main product catalog per year, and also offers two other mini-catalogs. Mailing lists are compiled from store purchases, from school districts and purchased lists.

Teach & Play Smart tries to get children and their parents and teachers involved with the products. Each store tries to hold at least one event daily, such as story telling, maskmaking or a video screening.

The result? Consumers spend more time inside the store, which often translates into more dollars. "It's not unusual for customers to spend one to two hours in a Teach & Play Smart store," said President-CEO James E. Berk.

"Education is the key to product sales," said Williams-Sonoma's Ms. Maggipinto.

So while not all of Williams-Sonoma's customers may drink coffee, they may buy a coffee bean grinder once they learn the appliance can be used to grind spices or nuts, she said.

Mr. Alstrup predicted that with the onset of more competition from online shopping via the Internet, more and more retailers-including department stores-will fight back with their own image-oriented, entertainment-focused concepts.

"Customers need to see us as someone who provides better value" in the age of online shopping, Borders' Mr. Stefanski said. "We have to provide entertainment that they can't get over a phone line."

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