Sit back, relax and don’t shop

In the new retail landscape, loitering is strictly encouraged

Sit back, relax and don't shopBobby Ammar wants you to feel at home. Well, not at home, exactly. More like the lobby of a boutique hotel, or an art gallery. Which is extraordinary, really. Because Ammar operates in the dusty business of selling cars. When the new Ericksen Infiniti dealership in Edmonton opened in September, complete with plush leather chairs, wide-screen plasma TV and, says general manager Ammar, “the most expensive cappuccino machine in the city,” it offered a peek into an emerging retail phenomenon—lounging. “We wanted a place where people could pour a latte, sit back and relax.”

Lounging is a reversal of almost everything we’ve come to expect from retail. Over the years, stores perfected the quick sell. Transactions-per-minute became the measure of success, with customers viewed more as commodities than living, breathing souls. Get in, do your business, then get out. But now a host of businesses, like car dealerships, but also dental offices, malls and even banks, want you to stay, take off your jacket and unwind. In a hyper-competitive retail landscape decimated by the recession, businesses are going to remarkable lengths to make you feel comfortable. If the waiting room was once the purgatory of retail, today it’s becoming an indulgence all its own.

Nowhere is this shift more striking than in the staid banking sector. This week, TD Bank officially opened its new concept branch in Brampton, Ont. A key feature is the lounge, where clients and their kids can hang out in big leather chairs. There are computers with games and access to childrens’ websites as well as a beverage machine. The bank is also opening its meeting rooms to community groups. “Historically, it always was an anxious thing for customers to go to their bank,” says Tim Hockey, president and CEO of TD Canada Trust. “This makes you feel warm and comfortable as opposed to thinking ‘Eww, I’m going into a cold sterile bank.’ ”

It wasn’t long ago that banks were doing everything they could to get customers banking online. But when the financial crisis toppled some of the world’s biggest banks, Canadian financial institutions remained strong thanks to their intense focus on retail banking. TD wants to build on that, and is borrowing a page straight from Starbucks. “It’s the concept of the third place,” says Hockey, referring to an idea popularized by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. “You’ve got your home, your work; everyone should find a third place where everyone knows your name.”

The idea of spending any more time in a bank than you have to might sound absurd, but it fits with a push by retailers to overhaul their relationships with customers, says John Gustavson, a commercial and retail architect in Vancouver. “They’re trying to break down a lot of the corporate culture and hierarchy that has existed in the past,” he says. The changes also reflect a broader shift in society. The walls between our homes, our work and our shopping trips—even the very concepts of public and private spaces—are vanishing.

Which is why, on a sunny afternoon, you can find crowds hanging out at the Shops at Don Mills, an “outdoor urban village” in Toronto. Dubbed the “anti-mall” when it opened in April, it encompasses a large public area, with a fountain where families routinely gather to play, even if they don’t set foot in the shops. The mall even held several music festivals over the summer. “People want public spaces,” says Alan Gomez, marketing director at Don Mills. “This brings in the community feeling.” Of course, the more time people spend there, the more likely they’ll spend their money, too.

By encouraging people to loiter, retailers hope to foster a deep brand connection.McDonald’s perfected the fast-service model but is outfitting its outlets with TVs, fireplaces and wireless Internet. Burger King plans to do the same. Apple lets you play with its pricey gizmos in its stores (called “experience stores” in retail lingo) with no pressure to buy. Even dental offices have started offering spa treatments and massage chairs.

In some cases, the trend can’t come soon enough. This year Canadian Tire unveiled a new breed of store. In the past, its service garages were known for their dank waiting areas and stiff benches that screamed “get off your butt and buy something.” But David Hicks, vice-president of store design, says retailers now know it’s impossible to force customers to do something they don’t want to. If anything, the retail lounge today is “a decompression area from your shopping experience,” he says. The new Canadian Tire lounges have plush leather chairs, TVs, Internet stations and play areas for children, all surrounded by cultured stone walls and laminate flooring. “We’ve tried to make the waiting areas as comfortable as home,” he says. “[They] look better than my house.”