Discovery Channel store interacts with patrons Retail: For the producer of The Learning Channel, a 30,000-square-foot store is an extension of its company's brand.

March 03, 1998|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

The 8-foot-tall cave bear skeleton looks like it belongs in the Smithsonian Institution instead of glaring at passers-by from a store window.

But for a mere $75,000 you can take the prehistoric remains home from the new Discovery Channel Store at the MCI Center in Northwest Washington. Forgot your credit card? Perhaps quartz crystals for $6 or a life-size model of a dinosaur claw for $20 would better fit your budget.

Part natural history museum, part interactive video arcade, part theme park, the experimental megastore opening Saturday marks Bethesda-based Discovery Communications Inc.'s expansion into retail in a big way.

Prices are as varied as the choices of bomber jackets, telescopes, puzzles, books, gems and fossils -- all centered around themes such as the ocean and space. (The cave bear is the priciest of the 10,000 items and not expected to sell anytime soon.) But almost anything will likely teach a lesson about the natural world.

For the $1 billion media company -- producer of cable television's Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and Animal Planet, among others -- the four-story, 30,000-square-foot retail extravaganza is yet another extension of the Discovery brand.

Much as the programming attempts to bring viewers on location, the store surrounds shoppers with hands-on experiences. They can play interactive dinosaur dig video games, identify aircraft that dart across a screen or spin a sphere that duplicates the movement of the tides or scan a video's bar code to get a sneak preview.

The concept is part of what some are calling the next wave in retail -- combining shopping, entertainment, education and technology in a mix potent enough to pique bored consumers' interest and lure them from their homes and 24-hour online shopping.

"This is the leading edge. This is a direction that the high-visibility retailers are going to strive for," said Bruce Van Kleeck, vice president of member services of the National Retail Federation.

Visitors entering the F Street store have no doubt they've slipped into the world of Discovery, even if they've never seen the mostly educational programs on cable. Visitors are greeted by a 42-foot tyrannosaur rex skeleton that towers above the the stone floor and wood and steel frames depicting the area beneath the Earth's surface.

The decor shifts to blue and green tiled floors and walls as shoppers ascend to Ocean Planet, where they can view footage of famous shipwrecks and buy decorative pottery. Next, it's on to the terra cotta tones of earth level, where shoppers find sportswear and Kenyan beer gourds. Contemporary grays and blues mark the sky and space science frontiers on the third level, home of globes, videos and model airplanes.

About 18 interactive exhibits mix in throughout the store, joined by a giant ant colony and the nose of a World War II bomber.

Two years ago, Discovery Communications set out to build more than a store, said Greg Moyer, president.

"We're hoping it will be a valid cultural attraction competing with museums on the mall," he said yesterday, offering a preview during a news conference.

In a more limited form, the company hopes to duplicate the experience at malls around the country -- including Harborplace in Baltimore. This year, the company will convert the 124 unprofitable Nature Co. stores it bought for $40 million from CML Group Inc. in 1996 into Discovery Channel stores. The Harborplace store is among the first 18 to be converted and should be finished this summer.

Revenue from retail is expected to double, though the diversified media company did not release specific projections. Store sales now account for about 15 to 20 percent of the company's income, said Michela English, president of Discovery Enterprises Worldwide, which includes the retail arm as well as online and publishing divisions.

Discovery is owned by Cox Communications, Advance/Newhouse Communications, Tele-Communication Inc.'s Liberty Media Corp. and John S. Hendricks, the company's founder, chairman and chief executive.

So far, the company has invested $20 million in the flagship store. A second flagship will open in San Francisco next year. Others will likely follow, as will new mall stores, English said.

Company executives hope the stores will appeal to busy families looking to blend shopping and quality time with children, English said.

"There are a lot more dual-income households with more income to spend, but they have no time," she said. "They don't want to go to the store only to buy something. They want it to be an experience, a destination for the family."

Companies such as Walt Disney Co., Time Warner Inc., Nike and Viacom have also opened superstores to extend their brand and make shopping an experience. At Viacom's superstore in Chicago, which celebrates sitcoms such as "I Love Lucy," shoppers participate in "The Brady Bunch" trivia quizzes and chat with life-size figures of Beavis and Butthead.

"Consumers need something different all the time," said Van Kleeck. "The interactive shopping experience is something they've responded well to."

'Larger than life'

But nothing is a sure bet, he said, especially in a climate of demanding consumers, tight margins and the need to control operating costs. For some companies, branded megastores have proven marketing vehicles rather than profit generators, he said.

Discovery's emphasis on the interactive could prove the key to success, he said.

"Discovery has blown it up into larger-than-life proportions," he said. "Anytime you have an opportunity to touch and feel, you'll have large crowds."

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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