King Throng

At the Mall of America, Pokemon packed 'em in

Yet even with Pokemon Central in place, other strategies are being employed to placate a slowly moving crowd waiting in a line that, at its peak, fosters three-hour waits: a fuzzy yellow Pokemon character named Pikachu walks about ("He doesn't have any hands," one mother explains to a disappointed five-year-old who's clamoring for an autograph), a video wall has been set up to play a cartoon (to educate adults about the product, Laks says, as well as to entertain the kids), and 200,000 pieces of collateral material--brochures, sheets of stickers, and so forth--are being distributed (Laks: "We make sure everyone gets the same free stuff so the crowd remains orderly").

Laks likens his events to theater. "You're responsible for the actors and the stagehands, and it takes the same amount of work to create an event as it does to stage actual theater," he elaborates. "But they're gaining in popularity [despite the cost], because marketers love to reach the specific target audiences."

 

Any snake oil salesman worth his salt knew that behind every sale lies a solid theatrical performance. It's high time the business community caught on, says Joseph Pine, a national marketing consultant based in the outer-ring suburb of Dellwood who recently authored a book on the subject, The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage (Harvard Business School Press).

Behind the Pokemon tour--which Pine believes is the largest event of its kind--and its ilk is the driving force of competition. During the Agrarian Age, he explains, everyone was selling the same raw commodities, so in order to compete, businesses began manufacturing finished goods, which led to the Industrial Age. Once the market became saturated with finished goods, business began giving away services to help move merchandise--ergo the Service Economy. Today customers are bombarded by goods and services, so the only way for companies to compete is to provide experiences that "use goods as props and services as the stage to create experiences that engage customers in an inherently personal way." That, Pine contends, is one of the only ways businesses can avoid competing solely along the lines of undesirable price cuts.

While many argue that such tactics will ultimately lead to a Disneyfied America in which people bounce around from one façade to the next, Pine sees those claims as elitist: People who travel to the Boundary Waters, for instance, use their time and money to cast themselves into the role of the rugged noncity type, and hence are manufacturing an artificial experience. Pine sees the process as the logical combination of work and play. "In today's world we're becoming time-starved," he says. "We don't have time to go shop at the Mall of America and entertain our kids. Retailers need to transform the drudgery of shopping into memorable experiences."

And in his view, any company that can get 44,000 people to stand in line for three hours has taken a step in the right direction. "This isn't any old Game Boy sitting on any old shelf at any old store," Pine posits, thinking like a nine-year-old. "This is the Game Boy I played at the Mall of America, where there were 50,000 people."

He has never heard of Joseph Pine, but Wizards of the Coast's Kevin Kurtz, the 23-year-old promotions manager who masterminded much of the tour, couldn't agree with him more (although he's dubbed his strategy "grassroots marketing").

"We have two goals," says Kurtz. "To provide a memorable experience for the attendees and, perhaps the most important thing, to get people moving through quickly. Kids go to an event where they learn how to play the card game, then they can go buy product. They play their Game Boys in a tournament, then they can go buy product." Kurtz refuses to reveal the revenues the Pokemon tour has generated. "Let's just say we're doing well," he says with a laugh.

No kidding. Pokemon Central isn't the only long line at the Mall on this day; more than 500 people are also waiting to get into the Wizards' recently opened retail store. According to an employee there, the spending range is between $15 and $20 per family. Similarly, according to Aaron Anderson, a manager at FuncoLand, a Mall of America video-game store, Saturday sales are up nearly 20 percent, with Pokemon Game Boys constituting more than half the day's purchases.

Amid the blizzard of money, Kevin Kurtz takes a moment to mull over the larger philosophical ramifications of his tour. Aside from the millions Wizards is making in card sales--not to mention the wealth of demographic information the company will garner from surveys handed out to visitors while they were standing in line--he maintains that the tour fills a void in modern American society. "Malls are becoming the central gathering place of our society," he observes. "In the age of the Internet, where everybody sits at home and stares at a computer screen all day long, I'm just glad we're able to offer kids the opportunity to get together."

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