Ice skating, Ferris wheel rides, batting cages, arcades, experiential art exhibitions and eye-catching backdrops for those Instagram-worthy moments.
These are only a smattering of the growing number of experiences at big stores and malls in the Twin Cities as retailers work to attract customers. Engagement, interaction and entertainment are buzzwords these days for major retailers, who know they have to go above and beyond stocking merchandise to attract shoppers.
"Never fool yourself," said David Zoba, an investor in Hey!Joy toy stores, including the Mall of America location. "Retailers are still about making profits and selling goods."
Twin Cities consumers will make up the highest percentage nationwide of those who plan to shop in store this Christmas shopping season in the major markets studied by Accenture consulting firm.
Those hitting the stores will find plenty of things to do and experience — and many at no cost.
"People feel if they get to do something for free, there's more value," Zoba said. "They feel better about the experience."
Scheel's in Eden Prairie offers a Ferris wheel, a well-stocked candy department adjoining its cafe and an arcade so children can be entertained while their parents test golf clubs or try on fitness gear.
"We try to be as family-friendly as we can be," said Jason Heintz, a store leader.
All Hey!Joy toy stores offer a play zone that's popular, often for selfie possibilities. "Probably the busiest area is the photo zone, and that's pretty consistent with what kids do when you look at the rise of TikTok and kids posting online on Instagram," Zoba said.
Jonathan Goggleye of Eagan brought his 3-year-old daughter to the Hey!Joy store one snowy afternoon so they could get out of the house and potentially buy a toy for her.
"She likes to come in and look around and play with toys," he said.
Not all the experiences are a hit, particularly with restless children. Candymaking demonstrations fell flat at Hey!Joy toy stores, so they were scrapped.
"What we found is even kids are time-pressed," Zoba said. "While they like to play, they don't like to sit and watch someone. They want to participate. They want to photograph it."
The Mall of America has upped its experiences throughout its history to give its flagship retailers and others the confidence that visitors will continue to flock in from near and far.
Those include new attractions such as Louvre Fantastique with recreated artwork often brought to life by augmented reality, a new climb zone attraction at Nickelodeon Universe and the TravisMathew golf apparel retailer offering ping-pong for those in the mood.
"Creating experience is extremely important, especially in the time that we're in, and differentiating what we can deliver in the physical space versus online," said Jill Renslow, executive vice president of business development and marketing at the Mall of America.
Renslow sees constantly offering something new in merchandise, food options and attractions as key to the mall's success.
"It's not only just about creating an exciting vibe for the guest, but it also gives that guest a reason to stay in the stores longer," she said. "That dwell time is extremely important."
Dick's House of Sport at Ridgedale Center, which opened in June, introduced an ice rink last weekend. Jill Woods, a store manager, is working on building relationships with the community as well as nonprofits and local businesses.
"We want to provide a place for the community to be able to play and to just have that experience with other community members in a place that's supportive of it," Woods said. "There' s no need to buy products to participate in our events."
Some of Dick's experiences and those of other retailers do involve a cost. A seasonal pass to the ice rink, for instance, goes for $30 a person or $80 for a family of four.
Dipayan Biswas, a University of South Florida professor of marketing, sees paid experiences, whether for children's events, one-off attractions or in-store cafes, as another revenue generator for shops who can't afford to rely on traditional retailing alone.
"These paid experiences can add to the bottom line," Biswas said.