Steve Fox, owner of Urban Putt at one of the holes on his course. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

In a market where e-commerce has usurped traditional retail and research suggests consumers go out for experiences rather than to shop, some Mission businesses are finding success in offering what can’t be ordered at the click of a button.

Steve Fox opened his San-Francisco-themed indoor mini-golf course Urban Putt in 2014, with exactly that in mind. His plan had never been to open a classic retail shop, but he knew what he was planning needed to have a draw.

“I was thinking from the very beginning that this was meant to be specifically an immersive experience,” said Fox.

Even then, he said, he took extra care in making sure it would be a golf outing that really couldn’t be found anywhere else. To that end, the indoor course includes miniature houses that rattle when a simulated earthquake moves through the course to a “boiler room” portion of the course that is accented by actual boiler room scents that are wafted in is custom built.  

But getting people to come in to a business isn’t just about such bells and whistles, no matter how kinetic.

“At a very practical level, it’s about this idea of creating a shared experiences,” Fox said. “I think places that do that tend to be successful. I think a lot of people are exploring this and the reason why they are exploring this is because there’s a recognition that people want something more.”

Mission Bowling Club’s cofounder Sommer Peterson says it wasn’t the research on consumer habits that prompted her decision making. Instead, opening a bowling club was about recapturing a feeling.

“Feeling is something you can’t buy, you can’t order,” Peterson said. “It goes back to the old Cheers philosophy: You want to go where everyone knows your name. You want to go where you feel welcome.”

That means paying attention to maintaining good service, but it also means creating an environment that gets people coming back. At Mission Bowling Club, Peterson said she was a little surprised to find how much people liked having celebrations.

“We’re a place for celebration, really, is what we’ve become, way more than I ever anticipated,” she said. “I just wanted a great place for friends to hang out, and it’s really evolved.”

It’s not only indoor sporting games that have benefitted from new consumer demand.

Over the past two years, Dave Cowen, executive director at the Roxie Theater, has seen the 108-year-old theater’s attendance go from between 40,000 and 45,000 paid admissions a year to more than 65,000 – not counting film festival admissions.

Seeing a film at the Roxie, after all, could be classified as an experience. Instead of the latest blockbuster, you might catch an obscure or hard-to-find film projected on actual 35-millimeter film. Or you might meet the people behind the film.

“Over the past two years we have focused more on having a live component, or bringing in 35 millimeter prints instead of digital,” Cowen said.

Management at the Roxie makes sure to set up programming that emphasises in-person connections with viewers. That’s given the theater an edge in the age of streaming.

“In those cases where there’s not something extra … titles being released on video on demand do result in smaller audiences in theaters,” Cowen said. Not so for events or classic movies shown on real film. “Where there is a live component or where folks can come out to experience something different … that also brings people out, much more so than simply showing something digitally.”

But if consumers are turning away from retail in favor of the arts, have they flocked to theater? Not necessarily.

“I don’t get the sense that the current demographics of SF support a reflective experience of consuming art – where one sits through a play or listens to poetic storytelling,” wrote Executive Director Anastacia Powers-Cuellar of Brava Theater Center. “People are reactionary now – they want an experience they can be immediately elated by – something to feel in their bodies because they spend so much time in a virtual world?”

In a city where fans are dropping hundreds, even thousands, on tickets to the hit musical Hamilton, Powers-Cuellar noted, people somehow aren’t as willing to regularly attend locally-produced, lower ticket cost theater productions near them.

At Brava, like at the Roxie, people do seem to come for the behind-the-scenes mingling – perhaps to feel like they have an insider’s view.

“People are more [likely] to pay $25 or more for a play if there is maybe a post-show or pre-show experience – meeting the artist, having food and drinks,” Powers-Cuellar wrote. “Employing these marketing tools to get people into the theater to see art-work seems to be how people are attracting some audiences.”

Some hands on experiences have also done well in the Mission. Danny Montoya, who owns and operates the woodworking school Butterfly Joint, says that working for 15 years as a kindergarten teacher made him qualified to run a program that focused on teaching children rather than adults. But the decision to run a hand-on shop also also came in part out of learning from other artists’ experiences trying to make a living.  

“How does any brick and mortar survive, I can’t even imagine with the overhead of hiringunless you’re sole proprietor,” he remembered thinking in 2015, when he was looking for a space to open his business. “Once you start hiring people and you’re paying rent, there is no way you can compete with online.”

Plus, he said, “everyone’s stealing everything.” His friends who create wood sculptures with a distinct aesthetic suddenly see eerily similar work pop up for sale in Russia, for example. One friend of his who makes paper sculptures and sells kits for people to make their own sculptures finds customers copy the patterns and sell them as their own.

“It seems to me like … you can’t do cease-and-desists forever. At some point you need to offer something that there’s just no way someone can replicate it,” Montoya said. “And the only way to do that is a live action, you-in-the-room kind of deal.”

Urban Putt, 1096 South Van Ness Ave. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

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