When ancient humans roamed the earth, anthropologists now believe, they walked into stores to do their holiday shopping instead of going online.
Sadly, that era ended when the giant Amazon.com meteor struck the earth, leaving millions trapped in their own homes waiting for their packages to arrive. Now, Walmart, seeking to boost in-store shopping, is trying to bring back the prehistoric tradition by throwing 20,000 holiday parties at 4,700 supercenters across the country.
Last month, I attended one of these these parties and immersed myself in the season’s most unapologetically pure “retailtainment” experience, throwing 20 years of The Nation exposés to the wind and surviving only on complimentary Hershey’s Kisses I stole from the children’s table.
Say what you will about Walmart and all of its well documented sins. Extreme holiday capitalism is, as long as you don’t think about it, the best form of capitalism.
There is nothing more exhilarating than the thrill of the hunt for a good deal. There is nothing more gratifying than being offered free gift wrapping. Once upon a time, excusing yourself to go to the mall to shop, only to sit in Brookstone massage chair and huff a maple scented Yankee Candle all while drinking your Christmas supremacist Frappuccino was the best American consumerism had to offer.
Alas, the Walmart in-store holiday party didn’t have all that. But what it lacked in vibrating hand massagers and Cinnabons it made up for in an unfathomable display of enthusiasm.
Retailtainment is a is a form of marketing that relies on in-store entertainment to generate foot traffic and boost in-store shopping. At the Walmart “Toys That Rock” party I went to, on Nov. 4 in Secaucus, New Jersey, kids could take advantage of the multiple coloring booths, play with this season’s hottest-selling toys, browse through the recently released Walmart toy catalogue, and take selfies with Santa.
To be honest, the whole event was, obviously unintentionally, reminiscent of an early ’00s Miami gay club. Over the department’s speakers, I heard ancient Taylor Swift and Katy Perry tracks — interspersed with holiday classics — that I hadn’t heard since my cool days. There’s a fine line between holiday camp and gay camp. Forgive me if, upon turning the corner, I fully expected to see two fully grown same-sex Walmart elves macking on one another.
I sadly didn’t see any making out, but I did witness plenty of gushing Walmart retailtainers, aka “Holiday Helpers,” in full elf/reindeer/Holiday potpourri regalia. Even if it was enthusiasm by force, they seemed to be genuinely excited to be taking polaroids with every curious family passing by. God bless them for even agreeing to take a photo with me, a 34-year-old goth teen who cut three non-confrontational toddlers in line. That takes manners.
Were they faking it? I have no idea. And that’s the questionable magic of retailtainment.
As e-commerce boomed in recent years, Walmart, decided to reboot its retailtainment wing. In 2016, for example, TV ratings for professional bull riding spiked by 20 percent. So Walmart brought a bunch of bull riders to supercenters. There, people who are not me and who love the sport could meet and greet with America’s most famous bull riding celebs.
Over the past few years, traditional brick and mortar businesses like Sears and Macy’s have struggled. Companies like Walmart who invested in their online infrastructure have been able to thrive, but in-store shopping gives customers a chance to interact with the brand and build loyalty — so in comes retailtainment.
Josh Strudl is Secaucus Walmart’s store manager as well as a true believer in the art of retailtainment.
“This event has been off the hook!!!” Strudl says, with as much energy as the human larynx can safely muster. “We’ve been working overnight like elves trying to get this prepared so we can have an outstanding Christmas . . .We want our customers to have a true retailtainment experience.”
Well, consider me more or less retailtained. As much as I enjoy never leaving my house, there’s something to be said for the great American tradition of “going somewhere and buying stuff you don’t need.” Especially when you’re surrounded by so much unapologetic camp.
Walmart has two nationwide parties coming up, a food-centered event called “Parties That Rock” on Dec. 2, as well as “Gifts that Tock” on Dec. 16. It’s too early to tell whether these parties will stand out enough to generate truly viral enthusiasm and boost sales.
Like it or not, retailtainment is back, baby. And it’s not going away anytime soon.