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David Cunningham stands on guard, arms locked behind his back, quietly surveying his neat rows of merchandise. Every few seconds, he fidgets with a model airplane kit or smooths over the folds of a Harley-Davidson T-shirt. Cunningham’s trinket tailoring is nervous energy defined; everything in his area—the third-floor aviation wing of the Discovery Channel Store, inside D.C.’s MCI Center—aligns with the precision of a pair of wings on a fully loaded F-16.
The young, blond Cunningham is what the company’s corporate headquarters likes to call an associate. At a plain old mall, he would be called a sales clerk. But Cunningham is more than that, much more, here in the fabulous new retail-entertainment economy of downtown D.C., hunkered down in a store that sells dinosaur eggs for $15,000 and repeats its slogan, “Explore your world,” like some kind of religious incantation. Ideally, his bosses would like you to think of him as a personal trainer for your brain—here to give your higher faculties a workout, and, while he’s at it, separate you from as much of your money as possible.
It’s 12:30 p.m. on a Thursday. Cunningham is watching over what will prove to be his most attentive customers of the day: a marketing team on an annual visit. Shuffling along in their Ally McBeal wear, the corporate visitors are already versed in the grandeur of his paper-airplane kit and the what-the-hell factor of his Harley compact disc holder (made from bent license plates). Flown in from Human Resources in Berkeley and bused in from Headquarters in Bethesda, they are here to make sure the store looks “new.”
“The marketing team does this to make sure everything looks fresh, alive, and the employees are motivated,” Cunningham explains. His hushed tone gives up a different message: I’m scared as shit my floor doesn’t sparkle. His eyes never leave the marketers/browsers.
For all the hype about the big-bucks union of amusement and shopping that shiny civic gewgaws like the proposed baseball stadium are supposed to generate, the arena so far hasn’t become the mecca its boosters promised. Recently, the Velocity Grill, also located in the MCI Center, closed its doors after the owner failed to make rent and tax payments. Watching Discovery fail to live up to its retail-trendy hype, you wonder if it might be next.
Throughout the week, the store gets its share of curious peekers, window shoppers, and random passers-by in search of a high-tech place to take a leak. But there are no substantial payoffs. During Thursday’s lunch hour, only 12 paying customers walk out. Sunday afternoon—when the weather is breezy and warm—that tally is down to eight in an hour. For a store with four floors, a marine-life mezzanine, a rocket-ship elevator, and $20 million invested, that doesn’t likely add up to big bucks—or an interactive exercise in meta-retail.
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Discovery flacks refuse to say whether they are making a profit yet, but insist that they’ll be at MCI for the long haul. They say the store is such a success that the company plans on opening up a similar store in San Francisco and a smaller mall-based joint in Tysons Corner. They say the store is still the future. Which means that the future downtown is a place where you can’t buy a loaf of bread, but you can shop for an eye-therapy pillow ($15) and massagers shaped like endangered animals (about $15).
You don’t want to be alone in this store. There are more than 50 employees, and they all seem to be working at once. Almost half of them are floor managers. At any given time, there are more employees than customers. If that weren’t intimidating enough, Discovery has also enlisted two uniformed and two plainclothes guards. They all wear name tags around their necks. The more important staffers carry walkie-talkies.
If store honchos had their druthers, those 50 employees would all be scurrying through a retail fantasyland, instructing kids on various natural wonders and historical phenomena while doting parents broke out credit cards for still more splendiferous to-go educational contraptions. Then they would all go home and watch the Discovery Channel (which the store promotes more heavily than its dinosaur bones). If the place worked right, it would be every parent’s nightmare: a place so fun that kids demanded to go there, and that—unlike, say, an old-fashioned public museum—offered grown-ups a choice between buying goodies for the kids and having an SUV full of unhappiness on the ride home.
That was the plan. By mid-afternoon, “Kris,” a bigwig manager, and another walkie-talkie type with the name “Stock Room 5” on his laminate work the T’s intently. Forget about evolution theory—the big debate is, Two shirts or three? Kris insists on three.
The employees have a lot more to work on. The marketing team may not have noticed, but the brochure passed out to every customer (there is an employee whose sole job is handing out the brochure) is outdated. If you try to find the “world’s strongest insects at work in a Giant Ant Colony,” you might be searching for days. According to a sales clerk, the ants all died and are in the process of being replaced. If you try to “enter the cockpit of an authentic B-25 Bomber,” you’re liable to break your nose: The cockpit is sealed off with Plexiglas.
Discovery may know how tornadoes form, but it apparently didn’t get past junior high when it comes to developing an honest identity. The store is a hodgepodge of every gift shop known to man. Sure, you learn something: As one nonshopper said, it’s where you learn what you want when you go to Sea World.
“It’s got a lot of things to sell, but not a whole lot I would consider buying,” says Daniel Letendre, who is visiting from Montreal. He says he thought it would be more educational, less retail. Letendre is sitting in the store’s movie theater on the fourth floor. Every half hour, the theater shows Destination D.C.: These Stones Have Stories to Tell, a 15-minute travelogue of the District. Admission is $2.50. It’s one of Discovery’s main selling points to the hometowners: We love the city so much we made a short film about it—narrated by Charles Osgood! The film offers the usual points—the city was designed by some French guy, and many presidents have statues around town. Though the camera rarely leaves the Mall, the film does tip its hat to Duke Ellington—which is appropriate, since you can buy a poster of the Duke for $78 not far away. Meanwhile, none of his albums are in the store’s CD section.
Dale Butler hasn’t come in search of jazz discs. Instead, he has schlepped his family all the way from Springfield, Va., to the Discovery Channel Store in search of the gadget-heavy educational aura that the store has managed to create for itself. Listen to Butler, though, and you realize he’s asking the store to add time travel to its list of wacky features: Butler claims he didn’t realize that everything would have dollar signs attached and that the educational stuff wouldn’t go much beyond the realm of models and jigsaw puzzles. He says he’ll be back: “Maybe in a couple of years.” CP