Close this search box.

Breaking ‘the fourth wall’ in retail – Comment (March 2015 – IRM51)

We regularly speak of ‘Retail Theatre’ – lifting the choosing and buying experience beyond the mundane. Theatre and drama is a construct that depends upon a suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, and approaches that ‘break the fourth wall’ have disrupted accepted norms. Ian Jindal contests that 21st-Century retail has its own fourth and fifth walls to tear down.

Theatre is an odd yet uniquely human construct. We watch a pageant inside a box (the rear and two sides of a typical set) as if we, the audience, are the other side of an invisible wall. The ‘fourth wall’. This requires a significant suspension of disbelief: an active adoption of conventions; a collusion in a shared, social pattern.

The actors pretend that the coughing, staring, fidgeting and beeping hordes aren’t there; and we pretend it’s normal for people to all face forward, talk to a wall and think aloud. In return we are helped and challenged through a range of emotions, ideas and experiences that both extend and shape our understanding of life.

Theatre can excite us, show new juxtapositions, render abstract thoughts and aspirations more real and create a sustaining narrative around character that is similar to the authentic resonance of a real brand.

Were we to take a child to the theatre however, their limited patience and clear view would cut through the pretence: “behind you!”, they’d shout; or they’d loudly answer the actors’ rhetorical questions!

Similarly, as adults we accept the conventions of stores: the enforced circulation, the retail adjacencies, the separation of similar products onto brand mats or different floors, queuing several times in the same store… yet the view of a digital native, used to being able to sort, filter, reshape and aggregate on their mobile would give us a different view on layout were we to start again.

In the middle of the 20th Century there was a move to ‘break the fourth wall’ and deconstruct the cosy conventions of theatre. While characters have always spoken to themselves (in soliloquies or sotto voce asides), the actors would increasingly speak to the audience, draw them into their secrets, thoughts and schemes or even engage them in the action. Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town has the narrator chat with the audience, and modern TV series House of Cards has the main character bring the audience into his scheming confidence to great effect.

In retail, we are also having to break this fourth wall. These are the assumptions that staff know everything, the customers need to be satisfied with what’s in front of them, that their voice has to wait in a queue to hear ‘computer says no’.

Customers are full participants in our retail theatre. They have learned the words to the play before they arrive in store (via their research online, recommendations and discussions). In store they can converse as equals with our frontline staff (and indeed are highly disparaging whenever they feel they know more than our store colleagues). They are also able to drive our business operations – order, amendments, returns, stock queries… all via their mobile devices.

The fifth wall in theatre is seen as the invisible barrier between members of the audience – we sit nearby, but isolated – interacting with the play but not our peers. In retail we’ve already broken this wall inasmuch as our customers already speak with each other, share reviews and recommendations, via us as retailers or in communities where we are guests rather than in control. However, we are increasingly involving the customer in our business – previews, crowdsourcing, demand mapping, social sentiment and prediction. These early starts will take on more importance as our brands move to be less “what our marketing claims” and more “how we behave every day at every touchpoint”.

The erosion or dismantling of these walls is the real story in modern retail. No longer merely a mini-distribution centre close to customers, where availability is the be-all and end-all, retail brands are now impresarios, stimulating demand, brokering services and managing experiences: before, during and post-purchase.

Read More

Register for Newsletter

Group 4 Copy 3Created with Sketch.

Receive 3 newsletters per week

Group 3Created with Sketch.

Gain access to all Top500 research

Group 4Created with Sketch.

Personalise your experience on