King Throng

At the Mall of America, Pokemon packed 'em in

By two o'clock on this Saturday afternoon, hundreds of children are dispersed throughout the Mall of America's Camp Snoopy, nestled among the tropical flora and fauna and the network of climbing trees that wind their way about the mountainside of platforms, steps, and rope-handled walking bridges. They are the lucky ones. The less fortunate--thousands of them--are still standing in the registration line that stretches nearly three quarters of the way around the colossal mall on this steamy July day.

Safely inside, the younger children are busily flipping through three-ring binders stuffed with playing cards and arguing with their friends about recent swaps. Their older confreres huddle in pairs, moving their cards around a paper game board. And while the odd parent can be heard in search of his or her suddenly vanished child, most sit silently, wiping the sweat from their brows while loosely grasping the glossy brochures and event guides their offspring have been handed. The still air is slightly humid. Despite the absence of mosquitoes, in here, as outside, it feels a lot like summer.

It was Pokemon that brought them here. More specifically, they were lured by the July 10-11 confluence of two enormous marketing tours aimed at hyping the virulently popular video- and card-based kid craze. The event, jointly staged by Nintendo (creator of Pokemon electronic games) and Wizards of the Coast (maker of Pokemon playing cards), features everything from card-trading to photo ops (have your picture taken next to a giant trading card!) to head-to-head Game Boy tournaments (held every half-hour). All the activities revolve around a central theme: Pokemon, a fantasy world based on human characters who attempt to subdue and train a plethora of little monsters with names like Geodude and Snorlax.

The way of all Pokemon: "They learn how to play the card game, then they can go buy product"
Craig Bares
The way of all Pokemon: "They learn how to play the card game, then they can go buy product"

Mall of America honchos pride themselves on their ability to transform the perfunctory shopping experience into what they prefer to call "unique retail entertainment"--a feat, says Mall spokeswoman Maureen Bahill, that allows them to hold customers captive for three times as long as an average retail outing nationwide. How do they do it? Well, for one thing, the mall's 4.2 million square feet are versatile enough to facilitate the double role of shopping mecca and events center. A perfect launching pad, in other words, for the growing trend of "event marketing strategies," which deploy carefully orchestrated ad campaigns disguised as entertainment.

Enter Nintendo, which launched its nationwide tour with the Mall of America event, and Wizards, which has been touring the nation for several months. While unprecedented, a joint tour stop in the Twin Cities would be feasible, the two firms figured, if it were held at the Mall of America, which could accommodate the 20,000 people they expected to show up. (Back in March, Wizards expected 5,000 kids to attend a tour stop in New Jersey. More than 12,000 showed up, and because the crowd exceeded safety codes, mall security sent the entire mob packing.) The Mall, after all, had proved it could handle that kind of turnout when it hosted the masses who turned out to catch 'N Sync in May.

But Pokemon is exceeding everyone's expectations. Within four hours the 'N Sync attendance figure--a record for the Mall--has been smashed. When all is said and done, a whopping 44,000 people will have filed through the registration line, many having arrived at 7:00 a.m. and waited three hours for the Mall to open.

A gathering that size would normally send an event crew into a tizzy. But drawing from their previous experiences, the Wizards workers have a carefully designed infrastructure in place. According to David Laks, manager of DSL Client Services, the event-marketing firm that staged the affair, the crucial improvement is the addition of Pokemon Central, a registration center that houses 17 brand-new computers to handle scheduling. Previously, multiple lines formed in front of the different activities that were offered, which led to stagnant lines that moved at only 30 people per hour. "With Pokemon Central, there's only one line for people to stand in as they wait to get their slotted activity times," Laks explains. "The line moves at 18 feet a minute, or 30 people in one minute. Without the single line, the people would have become unruly." The setup also allowed people to shop and visit the food courts once they'd been processed, rather than be stuck standing in line. "Prior to the system, people were complaining," Laks notes. "This time we didn't receive a single complaint."

Laks, who has staged more than 15,000 marketing events, says the Mall of America stop is the largest project he ever took on (his previous record was the 25,000 businessmen who showed up when Sony wanted sand volleyball courts--complete with Olympic players--on Wall Street). For a normal event, he says, DSL brings in 7 full-time staffers and 19 temps; for the Twin Cities stop, they used 25 full-timers and more than 100 temp workers.

Besides manning Pokemon Central, the workers walk around the endless line of people and urge them to read their event guides. "The key to a successful event is the dissemination of information," Laks asserts. "The idea is to properly educate everyone so they know what to expect once they hit the registration desk so they can be quickly processed."

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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