The Magic of the Retail Experience at Universal Studios

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For my 28th birthday, all the dreams of my 11th birthday came true: I finally received my acceptance letter to Hogwarts.

On a humid June day, we packed our bags, letter in hand, and made the lengthy, increasingly torrid trek from Asheville to Orlando and Platform 9 3/4.

I should preface this article with a very important note: I am not a theme park enthusiast. My preclusion of parks comes via a variety of factors: folks tend to frequent them in summer, when heat presses in from the sun above and the asphalt below; lines populated by gaggles of rowdy kids wrap in never-ending halos outside of rides; I prefer my feet planted firmly on solid ground, not floating freely in the arcs and loops of rollercoasters. But what I dislike most about theme parks, more than the overpriced snacks and stomach churning rides, is the complete and utter lack of customer service.

From jaded ride attendants to disenchanted actors to flippant restaurateurs, the entire staff of theme parks seems perpetually dissatisfied. Perhaps they rely on the necessity of their customers—they have to buy water, they have to wait in line, so why expend energy on service? Or maybe they’re just hot, overworked, and underpaid. Whatever the reason, I have never had a good customer experience in a theme park.

Which means I definitely had my reservations about our trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Spread between the two Universal Studios parks and sandwiched between other “worlds,” I worried that the authenticity and experience of the magical world would fall flat.

Miraculously—or should I say, magically—my worries were completely unfounded, and I had a truly memorable and valuable experience. And I’m not the only one; when the first theme park opened in 2010, park profits doubled and attendance increased by more than 30 percent before the second park even opened in 2014. The reasons why lay almost entirely in the unfaltering delivery of an incredible customer experience. Here’s what I mean.

Genuine and Unwavering Delivery of the Experience

From the moment you step into Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade, the experience is truly, unwaveringly immersive. Every part of Universal Studios is somewhat immersive; employees are decked in costumes that reflect the movie their ride is based on and concession stands auction off themed fare, but the effect is more often trite than authentic.

In the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, every aspect of the experience was completely and hypnotically enveloping. The details of every employee’s costume were executed with precision, their manner genuine and welcoming while still reflecting their position in the park (Florean Fortescue’s ice cream attendants, for example, held a more cheery disposition than the guides in Knockturn Alley—as they should).

The attention to detail is spectacular and staggering, leaving little for even the truest Potterhead to contest (with the exception of the location of Ollivanders, but that’s an argument for another article). The eateries feel like true pubs, the dragon atop Gringotts spews fire, and a wave of your wand performs real magic in the windows of the shops. It is truly believable.

These are all lessons that every retailer could stand to learn from. Do we expect you to suspend reality and create an alternate universe in your shop? No. But do we expect you to cultivate an authentic retail environment where customers are given a memorable experience, without fail? Absolutely.

It’s the abiding delivery of the customer experience that makes The Wizarding World of Harry Potter so wonderful. It’s what makes Potterheads come back again and again. It’s a concept that’s also integral to retail, yet is so often disregarded. Delivering unflappably great customer service will increase your fanbase, your regulars, and your profits.

It’s also the fact that it’s so gosh-darned believable that makes The Wizarding World of Harry Potter successful, and that also applies to your business. If your employees seem disingenuous, your customers will take negative notice. Instead, your employees should offer genuine, engaging service. And give your customers an opportunity to truly experience your products; experiential retail delivers a believable experience that not only prompts sales, but also breeds loyalty.

Banal Aspects Are Made into More

Lest we forget—the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is still a theme park, and it still harbors all the unpleasantries inherent to the business, like long lines.

But what sets the park apart is that even the unpleasant parts are made, well, pleasant. The first park boosted Universal Orlando’s full-year attendance by 20 percent within its first six months, and droves of people continue to flock there, meaning there are lots and lots of lines. But even the lines are enjoyable; the designers invested immense time and energy into making the waits visually and even physically interesting. For example, while waiting for the Harry Potter and Escape From Gringotts ride, a 45 minute interlude at best, visitors are taken through an experience in itself as they stroll through the expansive, marble hall of the bank populated with moving, talking goblins, and then deep into its vaults.

In the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you’re never bored or frustrated, because they avert those negative experiences with careful thought long before they ever arise. What if you did the same thing in your business?

You can’t eliminate the formalities and processes of retail, but you can make them more enjoyable for every customer. If they’re waiting for a repair, offer a free ride on a new bike model. If Mom is waiting for Dad and the kids to try out new climbing gear, engage her in conversation. Add engagement to your lines, your repair shops, heck, even your bathroom—your customers will appreciate the alleviation of their boredom, especially the next time they need to shop at a retailer like yours.

Branding & Marketing Is Organic

I have a friend who collects magnets, and before I’d even stepped inside the park, I’d received a nudge in the form of a text that he’d like a Wizarding World of Harry Potter magnet to add to his fridge.

I failed. Not because I didn’t try—I scoured every wand shop, robes outfitter, and traveling stand for a Wizarding World of Harry Potter magnet. I couldn’t find one because they don’t exist. In fact, branded merchandise doesn’t exist at all in the park.

That’s not to say they don’t have merch; they have heaps of it. You’ll find sweaters and scarves in your favorite house colors, dozens of wands, chocolate frogs and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans (and a Grimauld Place magnet, the gift I eventually chose). Like the rest of the park, the merchandise suspends the experience. It’s not stamped with “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™,” but with the true branding fans will recognize from the books.

Their approach to merchandise not only contributes to the relentlessness of the experience, it also presents their dedication to organic marketing. The park doesn’t rely on its customers to wear merchandise emblazoned with their logo out in the world to drum up attendance; instead, they rely on word of mouth. They know that their customers have such a magical experience that they’ll share it.

Once again, it’s a concept you can apply to your business. If you’re providing every customer with an incredible experience, you don’t have to expend a large budget on marketing because they’ll do it for you. You can have branded merchandise, of course, but it can be subtle so that it inspires conversation, rather than being the conversation in itself. Your business can and should be carried by word of mouth.

We muggles can learn so much from The Wizaring World of Harry Potter, no spells required.


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