RetailTools Aptos: Store Innovation Watch: December 2019 – Thinking Retail London


I first encountered the Harry Potter books a few years after they were published. I’ve read them myself, read them to my children, and taken my family to see all of the movies. Yes, I know the difference between “alohamora” and “reparo.” You could call me a Harry Potter nerd and I would wear the distinction with pride.

So, when I had the opportunity to speak at the Aptos Thinking Retail Forum just outside London – at the Harry Potter Studio no less – it was one of those moments where I hesitated to tell my family, because I knew they wouldn’t appreciate knowing that I was going to do this without them.


What is Aptos doing at a movie studio? As far as brands go, if the world of Harry Potter were a brand, I think it would easily catapult to one of the most valuable brands in the world. Not just valuable – one of the most powerful brands. Whether you’ve read the books or not, pretty much everyone will recognize the round glasses and lightning-shaped scar that are the hallmarks of Harry Potter himself. For retailers and manufacturers who must constantly strive to differentiate their brands to consumers, to gain even one-tenth of the recognition and enthusiasm that Harry Potter can trigger would be enough to carve out a significant lead in the market.

The Harry Potter Studio was a unique way to bring that point home through the studio tour experience itself, but also through the studio’s gift shop. We were fortunate to have the support of the studio in giving our group a walk-through of the store, with a focus on not only the store experience but also the decisions and thinking that go into the products offered in the store – which is often the only place where these items are available.

One thing to understand about the studio right away is that the focus is very different from (and not affiliated with) the Universal Studios Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Universal’s objective is to make you feel as if you are in and a part of the wizarding world. The studio tour’s objective is to educate participants about what goes into creating the movie version of that world. In some ways, the studio tour is even more immersive than Universal’s – there’s nowhere else where you can whisper the “sherbet lemon” password to the actual statue used to guard the actual entrance to Dumbledore’s office. But the experience is also designed to pick that apart by showing you how the office was designed to accommodate the cameras necessary for filming, and how the angle of the ceiling was designed to suggest a ceiling when there actually was no ceiling there.

The store at the studio extends that philosophy. One key factor going into the store – and for me, this was an important takeaway from the experience – is how much the store pays attention to the emotional state of the customer as they walk through the door. While there is an entrance off the lobby for those waiting to go on the tour, the main entrance to the store is actually at the back, where the tour ends and (like all good gift shop strategies) dumps you straight into the store.

The store designers are very aware that customers just went through a powerful immersive experience that expanded their understanding of the movie magic involved. The store itself begins with what would theoretically be your own wizarding journey – the day you would get your first wand. It then moves through many different vignettes, like quidditch gear, school supplies (books and stationery), a creature shop and a candy shop, among many others. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, then read the books or watch the movies, you muggle!

Which actually leads straight to my second biggest takeaway from the event. I happened to be in a group of people who were not major fans of the world of Harry Potter. They were mildly interested in the tour but didn’t know the world or the importance of all the things they were seeing along the way. They didn’t stand in front of the Gryffindor common room – literally the room used in the movie – and easily envision Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter hanging around on the couch. They didn’t get a chill standing beneath the towering angel of death looming over the grave of Tom Riddle’s father. But my Harry Potter world nerdiness was on full display.

This raises an interesting question: Is it possible to create an engaging brand experience that is accessible to both a brand fanatic and someone who is only marginally interested in the brand? I doubt that many non-HP fans would voluntarily opt in to a whole day at the Harry Potter Studio, so for that particular experience there is a high degree of self-selection happening. You don’t go unless you’re interested. But I’m sure there are also plenty of parents and/or siblings who are dragged to the studio by overly enthusiastic HP fans and have to endure a day of getting hauled from one movie set to another. Do you just ignore them (they have to tolerate the day no matter what anyway)? Or do you use it as an opportunity to try to reach them and suck them into the world?

That’s a particular question for Harry Potter Studio, but it does translate into retail too. When my daughter was younger, she was a big Justice shopper. The first time we walked into that store together – I went because I was the one paying – it was so overwhelming for me I almost walked right back out. The pricing alone almost became a barrier to entry for me, because the brand was focused on high initial prices with deep discounts. But the discounts came primarily from bounce-back offers – which meant you had to already be a customer in order to get the real deals. That makes acquiring new customers exceedingly difficult – if new customers never get “in,” how do you keep them?

So here’s my third takeaway from the forum: There are brand enthusiasts, and there are the people those enthusiasts drag with them. Retailers would do well to think about the shopping journey for both, because enthusiasts are not born. They’re made.

I don’t know how, next year, Aptos can top an event that leans on a world-class experience like the Harry Potter Studio. But I know we’ll do our best. And most important, brands should not feel intimidated by experiences that reach beyond the current expectations that consumers have for retail. Today’s “wow” experience is tomorrow’s “blasé.” But if you pay attention to the emotional state of your shoppers, create experiences that are accessible to both fans and non-fans, and design journeys that have the opportunity to create new fans while you’re at it – you’ll be well on your way to building your own world-class experiences.