top of page
  • Writer's pictureLarry Kulchawik

Experiential: An Old Concept Revisited

I had a recent discussion with colleagues from Japan and Germany. The discussion was about exhibit design trends. Both felt strongly about the concept of creating a visitor experience within a tradeshow environment. At that moment it dawned on me how this “experiential” craze has gone global. The power of a positive experience to encourage sales has also been a focus of attention within retail stores.

The shift to buying on Amazon (and other online e-tailers) has pushed retailers to look at new ways to retain buyer interest and loyalty and keep them willing to visit the stores. It is said that 80 percent of retail purchases will continue to occur in the stores thru 2020. As in retail, new experiential concepts will unfold in tradeshow design and the Amazons will continue to try and change our habits regarding the buying experience. In 2004, a group from EDPA (including myself) were looking at universities interested in implementing a degree program in exhibit design. We spoke with Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama; UNLV in Las Vegas; and Drexel University in Philadelphia.

While at Drexel we walked across the street and wandered into Wanamakers (now Macy’s). Wanamakers was one of the first department stores in the U.S. This department store with entertainment concept was a groundbreaking shift in the shopping experience. Owner John Wanamaker had wanted to create an attraction to bring visitors to the store. He felt strongly that a musical experience would put buyers in a positive mood and they’d enjoy the music and shop with a smile. After the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, he purchased a 2,500 pound bronze sculpture of an eagle, and a huge pipe organ with 10,000 pipes. He had purchased an abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad depot in 1876 and retrofit it to incorporate the eagle and the organ, and created a department store with a unique attraction as the Grand Depot became the Wanamaker Building. The Grand Court quickly became a Philadelphia favorite, highlighted by the Wanamaker Eagle and the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ. People visited in droves from throughout the nation. Among other things of note, the Grand Court has been featured in many major motion pictures. The tag line “Meet me by the Eagle” became huge in Philadelphia.

Wanamaker had changed the entire nature of the shopping experience. Many retail stores across the nation then picked up on the “Wanamaker” idea, (playing music in the store) but no one came close to the grand investment of building in a famous pipe organ into their store to attract shoppers and create a shopping “experience.” Subliminally, music soothes one’s soul and changes one’s feelings. People buy from people they like within an environment they feel good about. This environmental experience we create to do this matters and holds true to a point if we are just shopping, but internet shoppers really don’t care about the emotional experience when buying a known commodity like paper clips, underwear, toothpaste or an airline ticket. I believe that human interaction and a pleasant environment does matter when buying personal items like clothing, specialty food and cosmetics. High ticket items like a new house, machine tools, and automobiles also prefer a human touch to influence a final buying decision.

So as tradeshows and retail environments continue to compete against the “Amazon” concept of buying, new and clever ways need to be found to stimulate the in-store (or tradeshow) buying experience, without being overbearing. The focus on “experiential” has our attention. But, environments that push people to do something they don’t want to do can be a distraction, instead of an attraction. People are not robots. We must be sensitive when developing what we consider to be an attraction when it comes to human behavior and a visitor’s willingness to participate. I anxiously stand by to see how creative minds will continue to change environments and create experiences that really serve to influence a decision to buy.

Larry Kulchawik is the head of Larry Kulchwawik Consulting and author of “Trade Shows from One Country to the Next.” For more info, visit

This article is featured on Exhibit City News!

This story originally appeared in the September/October issue of Exhibit City News, p. 20. For more pictures and original layout, visit

bottom of page