Enough of the misery – it’s time to inject some fun into retail. Charlotte Hardie discovers how savvy retailers are lifting morale and sales with innovative in-store promotions to beat the blues.

Where can you watch ballroom dancing, film screenings, the English National Opera, West End musicals and the English National Ballet under one roof this month? Stumped? The answer, believe it or not, is Harrods. Those who wanted to see more retail theatre on the high street have got it – literally. For eight weeks, the department store has turned itself into an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza for its That’s Entertainment promotion.

At the same time, Selfridges – although not seeking to entertain, but fundraise – has rebranded itself Pinkridges this month in aid of Breast Cancer Care. In addition to stocking exclusive pink products – such as an Alexander McQueen scarf for£140, the profits of which will go to the charity – it is also hosting a charity auction for those who want to bid for Kate Moss’s Christian Louboutins or Jude Law’s suit from the film Alfie.

Such promotions take a huge amount of planning and extra work and can cost a fortune. So are they worth it?

Harrods chief executive James McArthur says: “Entertainment is a fundamental part of retail. Some people have asked me whether this is a response to dire times – absolutely not. We’ve been planning this for about 18 months. It’s about the brand, looking at what customers enjoy and setting yourself apart.”

Given that many of Harrods’ events have sold out, in-store events certainly appeal to customers. A Selfridges spokeswoman agrees that promotions have a positive effect on sales. “It brings people together and we feel this is something to which customers will respond. Sales are evidence of that already.”

At the least, a retail promotion drives traffic and a bit of extra PR. At its best, it reminds people why they love that particular brand. PR expert Peter Cross, who is managing partner of communications agency Yellowdoor – co-owned by retail expert Mary Portas – says the key to the latter is “creating something that resonates enough with the personality of the brand itself, so that it moves the whole brand forwards and the consumer generally follows”.

Cross believes that Selfridges makes this an art form. “It shirks conventional department store marketing, with themed fantasy promotions expressed across every level of the store’s image and experience, generally kick-started by a powerful PR stunt,” he explains. He points to the time when Stevie Wonder sang in Selfridges’ newly refurbished Wonder room as particularly effective.

Cross adds that although such events do not always live up to the hype, “the word of mouth created by such projects is enough to make those in the know, and those who wanted to be in the know, feel utterly out of it by not going down to have a look”. He also believes Harrods’ campaign will work. “It’s created a truly democratic and accessible experience, with enough PR hooks to drive coverage throughout the entire length of the promotion,” he says.

However, promotions do not necessarily need to run for several weeks. Selfridges used to run regular one-month “mega events”, such as the Vegas-themed extravaganza Vegas Super Nova, but marketing director Sally Scott says it has since switched to high-impact events throughout the year. “It means we can engage with more customers more often,” she says. “If I look at our programme for this month, as well as Pinkridges we have numerous other events going on, ranging from Space and Design to Cult of Denim.”

Nor is retailers’ ability to run promotions dependent on them being an iconic department store. One evening in August, dance music DJ Tiesto played a one-hour set at Armani Exchange’s Regent Street store. It formed part of the retailer’s partnership with Tiesto to support international humanitarian aid charity Mercy Corps. Thanks to the DJ’s fame, the store not only turned into a virtual club for an hour, but also generated a huge amount of publicity for the brand as hordes of fans gathered on Regent Street armed with camera phones to capture the hype.

The power of celebrity

Likewise, New Look generated widespread public interest in its Lily Allen collection last year when the pop star attended the launch party at its Oxford Street store. New Look head of brand marketing Amy Thom says: “Her appearance created a great buzz among both customers and press and brought the association to life. So, in terms of benefits, [promotions] deliver many things such as press coverage, word of mouth, positive brand association and increased sales.”

But unless retailers are going to do it properly, they shouldn’t do it at all. Harrods hasn’t settled for second best during That’s Entertainment. Its ballroom dancers were from Strictly Come Dancing, and the West End casts of Chicago, Phantom of the Opera and Mamma Mia! are putting on live performances. Every window is decked out with its individual film or entertainment theme, such as Pulp Fiction or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. One window features an original Bob Dylan painting from his exhibition; another houses a James Bond-style cocktail bar, complete with mixologist. Visual merchandising throughout the entire store is geared towards the promotion.

And, in addition to creating an impression in-store, a heavy PR campaign is often required to generate press and public interest. As McArthur says: “You don’t want to come in with a half effort. We didn’t bring in a couple of tired actors to give people a couple of lessons – we brought in actors from the West End. We said: ‘Right, let’s bring in the English National Opera, let’s not bring in the local dance troupe’.”

In the same vein, it’s wise to not scrimp on cost, otherwise a promotion will scream budget. Whatever the expense, though, McArthur is certain that “it’s the right thing to do”. He adds: “When you invest time and energy into bringing people into the store, it would be easy to underwhelm.”

It’s also worth bearing in mind the ways in which costs can be reduced. Harrods store image director Mark Briggs says: “It’s a big investment, but there are sensible ways in which you can do it in terms of working with partners. Many aspects can be third-party funded.” The costs of book signings and screenings are minimal, for example.

Promotions, of course, require significant long-term planning. Staff have been working on That’s Entertainment, for instance, for the past 18 months. As Thom says: “It’s important to have a proper strategic plan from the outset. What are the objectives of the activity? Is it relevant? Is it engaging? How are we communicating this to the audience?”

Retail branding expert Martin Butler adds that some retailers “lurch from one promotion to another, giving mixed messages to the public rather than allowing each promotion to act as a building block on the previous one”. Above all, retailers shouldn’t hurry to come up with a concept for the sake of it; the idea itself is as crucial as the execution. And as Scott adds: “Whatever the content of the event, it’s vital that we always convey the true essence of our brand: energy, excitement, fun.”

Every minute detail requires careful consideration – a challenge in itself, given that retailers’ mindset is often operational and geared towards responding to the here and now. What are the health and safety restrictions, for instance? If you’re serving alcohol, do you have a licence? If you’re planning to use the campaign to drive traffic to your web site, do you have the additional capacity that may be required?

Also integral to the success of such campaigns is widespread customer appeal. At Selfridges, for example, the price points for its Pinkridges products range from£2.95 for a greetings card –£1 of which goes to the charity – right up to£500 for a Fracas perfume –£415 of which goes to the charity.

All staff must also be engaged in the promotion. While only a proportion might be involved in the logistical planning, everyone must be briefed, not least so they can answer any queries. McArthur says: “If a customer is looking even slightly quizzical about why there is a piano keyboard in the middle of the normally pristine white hall, if they ask someone, that colleague will be able to explain the story.”

Linked with this is the importance of generating enthusiasm among staff. If a promotion is viewed as nothing more than an inconvenience that involves hard work and potentially longer hours, their mood is not going to help achieve the objective of engaging shoppers. On the opening morning of That’s Entertainment last Monday, staff were treated to their own 15-minute performance by the Chicago cast. McArthur says: “The mood of people coming out of that was incredible and generating enthusiasm is fundamental. If your people feel intense pride and passion, the rest of it follows.”

People have talked about the importance of retail theatre on the high street for years and yet not enough retailers do it. As Briggs says: “It evokes emotion. During a time of doom and gloom, we want to give customers the unexpected. People want to be transported out of their day-to-day worries and this gives customers an opportunity to both shop and be entertained.”

Events such as That’s Entertainment put the spark back into retail at a time when many people’s interest in shopping has faded to a dim glow. It may seem like it requires a monumental amount of time and energy that could be better applied elsewhere, but the retail sector is not exactly a cheerful place to be at the moment. What better way to perk up staff and customers than with fun and creativity?