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Europe: Discovery Channel Store Treats Customers As Explorers

  • Robert Lyle



Washington, 6 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The huge Russian cave bear rears on its hind legs to its full 2.5 meter height, looking ferocious enough to require a second look to fully realize it is just a skeleton.

Found in a cave in the Ural Mountains three years ago, the bear probably weighed 318 kilograms when it roamed the Russian landscape over 200,000 years ago during the Ice Age. The skeleton has no obvious supports, yet stands as if somehow alive without its flesh.

This latest example of the preservationist's art, achieved by an Italian company (Geo-Linea) using new technology to place metal rods inside the bones, cannot be seen at a major museum, however.

It is a welcoming exhibit to a most unusual retail store which is opening to the public this week-end in downtown Washington, D.C.

Called the Discovery Channel Store, it is a four and a half storey combination museum, retail store and educational experience -- a direct reflection of the historical and nature documentaries and animal programs the company transmits on its nine channels around the world.

The Discovery Channel Europe, which combines aspects of all its global TV channels, is seen in Russia, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Moldova and Hungary. The store contains 2,800 square meters of floor space where more than 10,000 products are on sale. But it is almost necessary to search for the goods on sale because the place is filled with museum-type inter-active computer terminals, operating displays and TV screens of every sort.

Discovery Communications President and Chief Creative Officer Greg Moyer says the intent was to build more than just a store. "We want this place to have some core educational value," he said during a press preview. "We have generous amounts of programming and contend that's available to anybody who walks through the doors, no admission charge, just come in and learn," he said.

Located in the complex of a new downtown sports arena, the store begins on its entry floor as if underground. This Paleo World floor, featuring a nearly 13 meter long cast of the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found, as well as the Russian cave bear, sells things such as books, videos and puzzles dealing with the period of the dinosaurs, including casts of the Tyrannosaurus Rex's foot claw, hand claw and tooth.

But the visitor's attention is caught as much by the stunning architecture of the store, which has an atrium-like opening from bottom to top, criss-crossed by glass-encased escalators and open stairs. The next level up, the Mezzanine, is the Ocean Planet, focusing on underwater exploration with TV screens showing Discovery documentaries on the famous Titanic wreckage.

On the blue-tiled ocean planet floor, merchandise includes computer CD-ROMS on Jacques Cousteau's famous underseas explorations, videos, and a wide array of books on sharks, dolphins and all kinds of sea life.

Each floor features a different theme -- Wild Animal Discovery, Planet Explorer and World Cultures are on the next floor, Sky, Space and Science on the level above that.

Among the world cultures section, Armenian and Russian goldsmiths were commissioned to produce jewelry of Byzantium as part of a theme of "life" from around the world. Not far away, a two meter tall hand-carved wooden giraffe from Swaziland demonstrates the broad range of areas covered.

The head of the Discovery company's non-television enterprises, Michael English, says the approach is to treat customers as explorers who want to know more about their world, but want to do it in a "real entertaining way so it's painless learning."

In addition to several thousand visitors expected at the store's opening this week-end, the Discovery channel has revamped its internet web site to include live interaction from the store, such as chats with famous explorers and nature documentary producers who will make regular appearances at the flagship store.

Discovery plans to open a similar facility in San Francisco next year and is spreading its marketing approach to several thousand smaller retail stores all across the U.S. and in Great Britain.
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