Consumer electronics retailing is taking on yet another look. Over the past 20 years, sellers of TVs, computers, phones and various other household products have gone from industrial stack-em-high-and-watch-em-fly gondola presentations to soothing, inviting lifestyle presentations to electronic playgrounds of interactivity. Not surprisingly, the biggest single driver of this shift has been Apple.
“Apple shifted the mindset of owning consumer electronics,” says Michael Bodziner, principal at Gensler (San Francisco), “from the practical consideration of ‘iNeed’ to the aspirational consideration of ‘iWant.’ ”
Product introductions are rapid and consumers flock to those innovations like moths to an LED display. According to PCWorld.com, the Apple iPad tablet, introduced in spring 2010, was the most quickly adopted electronic device ever.
In the process, Apple has also changed the way the merchandise is sold. “Apple brought a fashion merchandising sensibility to its stores,” says Bodziner. “The company spent a lot of time developing the look and feel, color and shape, of its merchandise. And it presents them the same way Neiman Marcus presents cashmere sweaters – visual excitement and story-telling, with the focus on the product.”
The lesson has not been lost on the big boxes that fill their stores with a wide range of merchandise, from digital flatscreens, computers and mobile devices to the endless rows of accessories: headphones, batteries, computer games, movies, remote control devices, 3-D glasses.
Best Buy, the industry leader (if, for no other reason, by virtue of being the last man standing), has tried to walk the tightrope between sleek, high-tech design and simplified messages, replacing its former sea of fixtures with open aisles and overhead signage that directs shoppers to specific product areas. A broad runway leads shoppers’ feet and eyes to a back wall full of big flatscreen TVs.
The retailer’s previous design was highlighted by a latest-and-greatest feature in the middle of the store, the central architectural element. But shoppers had to wade through heavily merchandised aisles stuffed with commodities and accessories.
“The average person struggles to understand how all these products act and interact,” Bodziner says. “The best designs convey a simple, direct message.”
The runway in the new Best Buy design provides opportunities for telling the merchandise stories, while interactive zones and stopping points in each department offer product demonstrations – especially the way products connect with one another.
The big-box mass merchandisers vary in the way they present consumer electronics. Walmart and Target have moved their electronics departments to back corners or rear walls of their superstores, carving out large and open areas featuring flatscreens against the wall, cell phones in serviced counter areas and
several aisles of smaller products and accessories.
Costco has its electronics department right up front, as club members enter the store. But in all cases, the areas are subdued in look and feel, allowing the merchandise and the brands to stand out in settings that blend in to the rest of the store.
“Costco showed that you could sell advanced technology in an ordinary store,” says Peter Dixon, senior partner and creative director at Prophet (New York). “Sleek and futuristic can make your stores seem obsolete in a short time. Nothing ages faster than the future.”
Another change in the market is the way consumers shop in an electronics store. They no longer just look; now, they expect to be able to touch and play. “A TV on the shelf or along a wall used to be a passive screen with an on/off switch and channel and volume controls,” says Randall Stone, senior partner at Lippincott (New York). “Today’s TVs are more like giant iPhones.”
So whereas once products were mostly merchandise on a shelf, today most of them are mini-experiences, interactive devices with opportunities for shoppers to test-drive and learn about the product.
“It’s all about the customer experience,” says Dixon. “That’s one of the reasons Apple has thrived and CompUSA, Circuit City and Incredible Universe are gone. Apple has its well-trained, well-staffed Genius Bar. The others had tech geeks who were comfortable talking only to other tech geeks.”
Bodziner feels gaming retailers were at the forefront of creating interactive environments. But it was not without challenges. “The fixtures and game consoles had to be on and live whenever the stores were open,” says Jason Floyd, former director of store development for GameStop Inc. (Grapevine, Texas), the industry’s largest game retailer. “The most efficient way of doing that was by placing fixtures wherever we had existing power. In some cases, it was logical to be in the primary path of customer traffic, so we dropped power from the ceiling. Not pretty, but the least-expensive option.”
In today’s wireless world, making everything live eliminates wiring but presents different, more complicated, challenges. “Retailers have to install a wide, strong and deep network,” Bodziner says, “with enough bandwidth to handle all the in-store needs: QR codes, downloaded apps, tweeting, WiFi. People are coming into the store with their own devices, so your connection with them has to begin in the parking lot.”