Engaging customers can make your store more than just a place to buy things.

In 1989, Steve Wynn opened the Mirage Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas, the first new resort on the Strip in 16 years. As recounted in a recent PBS documentary, "Las Vegas, An Unconventional History," this represented a critical turning point in the history of Las Vegas. Mr. Wynn was quoted at the time as saying, "They don't need another casino'¦ but they could sure as hell use a major attraction." Or as Brian Greenspun, editor of the Las Vegas Sun, says in the documentary, "Steve came and he realized that if you build it, and you build it better and you create a little demand where maybe there wasn't demand '¦ everyone will want to get into it."

Give them something they haven't experienced before. Give them an experience that's new, fresh, and exciting. The story of the Mirage in Las Vegas is, at heart, a story about retailing, about differentiating and growing business by creating a unique, compelling shopping experience.

Retailers have long understood that doing business is much more than just selling things to customers. Every cosmetics salesperson understands that they're not selling make-up, they're selling glamour. And retailers have long sought to create compelling presentations and experiences to capture customer's attention.

But there's more to it than merely capturing a customer's attention. You have to involve the customer, get them actively engaged in some large or small way. You have to create more than just an impression, you have to create an experience. Here are a few examples to illustrate what I'm talking about.

Build-A-Bear Workshops was founded in 1997 on the premise of creating a fun, interactive experience for their customers. Retailers had been selling stuffed animals for years, but Build-A-Bear is about so much more than merely buying a stuffed animal. Their target market is ten to twelve year old girls, so after they've selected the animal they want to 'build', they get to play dress-up and select the clothes and accessories for their new friend. They get to put the heart in their friend before its stuffed, brush out its fur afterward, and create a birth certificate for it. Build-A-Bear took the stuffed animal business to the next level by creating a compelling, destination experience for their customers.

But it's not just large retailers who can do this. Build-A-Bear, after all, started out as an independent retailer with a single store in St. Louis. Smaller independent retailers can create compelling experiences as well.

Kimball Farm in Westford Massachusetts for years sold the best ice cream in the area. They were legend for the crowds they drew in the summertime. But times change and in the late 1980's they began to evolve. Today, Kimball's is still the place to go for the best ice cream, but there's also a captivating country store and café, a nine hole pitch-and-putt golf course, a driving range, two 18-hole mini golf courses, and a bumper boat pond. In other words, it's not just about the ice cream anymore. Kimball's is a place for the whole family to go for the afternoon or evening, and of course nobody leaves without stopping for a heaping cone on the way out.

Leonards New England creates a far different experience for a far different customer. Leonards is a retailer of antique furniture based in Seekonk Massachusetts. Their specialty is antique beds. They buy antique rope beds, primarily from the 19th century, with turned and carved bedposts, and in their own on-site workshops, resize them for today's standard mattress sizes, and refinish them exquisitely. This is not an inexpensive process and their beds command anywhere from $4,000 to $20,000. But for the customer who doesn't see exactly what they're looking for on the floor, Leonards maintains a large inventory of original, antique bedposts that a customer can choose from, and Leonards will build a bed to their specifications. Customers can select the bed size and height, the headboard style, and any other details they desire, and Leonards will create a unique, heirloom quality bed for them.

There are any number of ways that you can actively engage your customers and create a compelling retail experience that make you far more than a place where they go to buy things. Every independent retailer has unique opportunities to create a retail experience that sets them apart and transforms them into a true retail destination, and transforms their business.