What goes around, comes around

Posted: 02.27.13

Watch out, looks like bricks and mortar are coming around.

Somewhere, some time or another I’m reasonably sure someone around here predicted the end of bricks and mortar, and just a few short years ago, as we rummaged the desolate aisles of failing record stores and bookstores, that day seemed to be coming sooner rather than later. But, a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. The champions of digital are opening their own retail stores. Apple started it all, as you might expect, and there have been sporadic efforts from Samsung, Sony, and others. Microsoft, eager to rebuild its tablet initiative, has opened its own stores, often right near Apple stores—note to Microsoft: that might not have been the greatest idea in the world because the difference in crowds is just a teensy bit obvious.

Now there’s news that Google is busy preparing their own retail stores this year in order to sell more Chromebooks, Nexus tablets, and other hardware. Best Buy has started a campaign designed to end the practice of show-rooming. They’ve promised to meet all online prices to thwart the practice of going to stores to get someone to explain different products to you and then going online to buy your choice for a lower price.

So, why should I get out of my comfy chair and go to the store instead of clicking on the latest object of my desire?

• I won’t have to wait.
• I can try it on in case I have spent somuch time in my comfy chair nothingfits any more.
• I can play with it to see if it’s really ascool as it looks online.
• I can heft it, open it, stroke it to see ifit’s well made, or shoddy.
• I know it will actually be the color Ithink it will be.
• I can have it right now.

The new breed of stores are not departments in big-box stores, they’re cozy, friendly outposts where the companies can reach out and interact with their customers. The stores help create an identity for big impersonal com­panies as well as sell products that might otherwise be difficult to sell.

As a case in point, Google’s stores could well arrive at around the same time as Google Glass. This is definitely something people are going to want to see and try out before they buy it. It’s a completely new segment, the wearable head thingie, and it might have all sorts of complementary devices like wrist thingies or phones, or tablets, etc. One would like to have all this explained, one thinks.

Also, I think companies can have more control over their brands and even try to change attitudes. In the case of Microsoft, the company definitely has to work on the warm and fuzzy factor that Apple has been so much better at cultivating. A store featuring games, gadgets, and tablets helps paint a different picture than the company that tortures us with work tools and operating systems.

Apple has to protect their own bright and friendly brand. That was evident when the company mistakenly hired John Browett from electronics retailer Dixons and they had to fire him seven months later because he so changed the environment of the stores for customers and employees. Give Apple credit for recognizing immediately that no amount of efficiency or cost-cutting is worth the good will of their customers or the loyalty of their employees.

Google has to get a personality. To most people they’re little more than a brightly colored logo and a search line.

Samsung could likewise do with a personality transplant. Right now the company is all televisions and lawsuits. We might be pulling for them out of a sense of fair play (or we might not out of a sense of loyalty to Apple), but people outside of Korea don’t really see Samsung as a company of people, just a company of products.

So, does this mean the process is reversing itself? Will bookstores come back? Don’t be ridiculous. A book, a movie—you know what you’re going to get, and increasingly, people are fine with it being a digital experience. Some bookstores are hanging in there with coffeehouses and reading rooms, and we hope they can make a go of it—but what they’re trying to do is build their own brand not sell books.

In the end, though, it’s reassuring, don’t you think, that companies are coming to realize that we humans need attention? We need a place to come to look at products, or maybe to complain about products, get products fixed, and just have someone to talk to about it all. It’s also reassuring that this new breed of store is making an attempt to be the kind of place we want to go and hang out a bit, browse, and chat.