Style and not

Over the weekend, I read a neat article about the differences between Apple stores and Sony Style stores. One of the funniest comments came after the writer noticed the huge disparity in foot traffic (a lot more people were in the Apple store) in the two stores in a Palo Alto mall:

Last week, I shared these impressions with Dennis Syracuse, senior vice president for Sony Retail, who assured me that Sony’s stores drew an average of 350,000 visitors annually per store. Mr. Syracuse rejected the idea that his store concept could be compared to Apple’s. His stores were conceived, he said, as a “fashion boutique for women and children” that incidentally happened to carry electronics instead of clothing.

We happen to have both stores (it’s actually a mini Apple store, a narrower version of the full-sized stores) in a nearby megamegamall, so I stopped in on both of them while running an errand after work (I took a half-day today; no need to dive right back into the pool, after a stressful couple of weeks and a nice long weekend). At 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, what did I find?

(Undersized) Apple store: 19 customers, and 7 or 8 floor staff

Sony Style store: 5 customers (3 of whom were under the age of 12), and 5 floor staff

Now, the Sony store is located among high-end stores, while the Apple store is flanked by Banana Republic and a Nine West, but it was difficult to understand Mr. Syracuse’s vision of a “fashion boutique”. This Sony store was just as overloaded with products and “stuff” as the one Mr. Stross describes in his article: laptops, ebooks, Playstation gear, TVs, stereos, home theaters, and more. According to its own site:

The stores feature several hands-on demonstration areas, including HDTV display walls equipped with high-definition TV sets and DVD players, and a digital imaging gallery with a selection of camcorders, photo printers and digital still cameras as well as VAIO PCs to exhibit connectivity.

As product mix goes, it was a mess: a very well-organized mess, but still a mess insofar as there was nothing linking the products but a Sony logo. Or, as Mr. Stross writes:

But Sony’s offerings have not impressed retail consultants with whom I spoke. Willard Ander, a senior partner at McMillan Doolittle in Chicago, was unsparing in his assessment: “Sony doesn’t get retail. The stores are not energized and not shop-able.” Apple stores extend an “emotional connection” to their customers that Sony’s do not, Mr. Ander said. The absence of such a connection, he said, was a common failing of manufacturers who venture into retail on their own.

In addition to this baffling array of electronics, I think another big problem with the Sony Style setup is that, while the Mac store sells hardware (and accessories), the Sony store splits its focus between hardware and software. That is, it featured numerous product displays and posters for Sony’s music and movies. So the Sony store shows off CDs and DVDs of Sony artists, but I don’t believe there’s brand/label/studio awareness when it comes to most music and movies (Pixar notwithstanding).

In contrast, the Apple store treats content (software) as something the user can go pursue: a poster for the iTunes movie store shows many different properties, but doesn’t limit itself to, say, Disney videos. The store is selling its users the opportunity to pick from a universe of movies and music, not those of one label/studio.

On top of that, there’s plenty to be said for the airy brightness of an Apple store. The floor design, even in a mini-version, is open and easy to navigate. It isn’t selling as much as a Sony store, and it doesn’t have to.

This afternoon, I came across another Apple retail article: this one’s about Dell’s attempts at recapturing market share, including a stab at retail, despite its roots in direct sales. Unfortunately, it sounds a lot like Catherine Keener’s character’s store, We Sell Your Stuff On Ebay, in The 40-Year-Old Virgin:

Earlier this year, Dell opened its first retail store in the NorthPark Center in Dallas, right across the mall from an Apple store. Inexplicably, the Dell store carries no inventory. Customers can check out the goods, but can’t actually buy them in the store. This is the main reason cited for the failure of Gateway’s chain of stores, which shuttered in 2004.

The article also explains that, since design is now important in the PC biz, Dell’s gonna get some designin’ on! It felt a lot like a “let’s buy some innovation!” initiative, and that trick (just about) never works. Usually, it involves overpaying for people who had One Good Idea, and telling them to “be creative.” I’ve seen it.

I don’t mean to blow sunshine up Steve Jobs’ ass, but it is pretty amazing that Apple has managed to make retail work in a field where a lot of other companies have tanked.

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