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Summary:

We’re in middle of a smartphone boom. Dozens of new devices are coming to the market, and that means customers need help buying these complex handsets. This is why where and how you buy a device is now as important as hardware and software.

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There’s no denying we’re in the midst of a smartphone boom. Not a day goes by when we don’t hear about a new device hitting the market, hoping to topple Apple’s iPhone from the top of the totem pole. In this fiercely contested market, it’s important for phone makers to stand apart from others – whether it’s via design, user experience or special software offerings. Samsung, Motorola and HTC clearly are going down this route.

However, equally important is the actual shopping and retail experience. Where and how you buy a device is as important as what you buy. That realization came this weekend when a good pal of mine, who’s shopping for a smartphone, dragged me to our local Best Buy store.

He wanted to get a close look at various smartphone options. Best Buy has been pushing itself as a place to see and buy many of the latest phones from major brands and major carriers. (Just to be clear, this isn’t one of the speciality Best Buy Mobile Only stores — there were 100 in early August — that are popping up across the country.)

The aisles of the store were full of phones from brands like HTC, BlackBerry, LG, Samsung and Sony Ericsson. There were some hideous devices being sold under carrier brands as well. Many of them seemed as if they belonged on a different planet. Since we weren’t there for those monstrosities, I paid no heed to them. True to their word, major national carriers such as Sprint, Verizon and AT&T were represented at the Best Buy store.

We were looking for smartphones, and there were quite a few Android phones including some of the new ones from HTC. The only problem was that many of these Android phones turned out to be non-working replicas, which made it difficult to learn how these devices actually functioned. Had we been able to spend time with a phone, my friend would have gone from casual observer to an actual buyer, but we soon left. The experience, to put it politely, was cluttered, drab and utterly forgettable.

In sharp contrast, when you enter the Apple Retail Store, you find a well-lit place that is inviting and aesthetically appealing. No wonder a million folks come through Apple’s retail stores every day. More importantly, the company lets you play with its devices as much as you want. Nothing makes the sale as effectively as the iPhone or the iPod touch itself. You like what you see, then you buy. If the experience isn’t for you, you move on. Say what you like; the Apple on-site sales staff is often clued in, if somewhat annoyingly smarmy. (Related Post: Infographic — the Retail Phenomenon Called Apple)

Like Apple’s stores, I’ve found that Verizon Wireless’ company-owned stores are actually a much better retail experience, as the devices on display actually work (even if they are difficult to use because of impossibly large security tags), and most of the sales staff is well-trained to answer the questions. Now if they only had the iPhone.

I believe — because smartphones are decidedly more complex than feature phones, requiring some kind of familiarity with the user interface — it’s important to think differently about how these phones are pitched to the likely buyers. If the mobile industry expects the mass audience to become smartphone buyers, improving the retail experience would be a good start. This is a good place to copy Apple: Shift from the idea of selling to the notion of educating your potential customers.

This is where I think Google needs to step in and set-up a chain of Android stores, or work with retail chains like Target to build Google Android Experience Kiosks that focuses a lot less on actual sales and more on making an average buyer comfortable with Android and the many dozens of phones and tablets that use the OS.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Apple’s Path to the Living Room

  1. It’s a difficult situation for retail outlets. The cost of putting a live unit on every display, for every phone (even if you just limit it to smartphones) would be outrageous. One of the reasons that retail outlets only have dummies is to drive costs down, which is why it’s almost *always* cheaper to buy your smartphone at Best Buy or RadioShack or a similar retail outlet than from the corporate company-owned store – they’ve made cuts here and there that save you money (it’s the same reason why the online retailers are, again, cheaper than the retail outlets).

    It’s an unfair comparison to Apple, IMO, because Apple only has, grand total, probably 15 different units (including iPads, iPods, laptops, etc) to purchase, and these are only refreshed once in a 12-month period, give or take. Contrast that to the mobile arena that Best Buy or RadioShack are playing with – 3 or 4 carriers, each with 5-6 smartphones, each of which are replaced at least twice in a 12-month period, if not more frequently. The cost of having live units would be staggering.

    My recommendation to friends and family is usually to go to the corporate store for whatever carrier and play with the live units there – spend all day if you want, and then go actually purchase the phone at Best Buy or RadioShack or similar. It’s a more involved sales process, but it helps. (Also, most RadioShack locations have a live unit of one or two of the hottest phones, typically – don’t know about Best Buy)

    I don’t typically recommend the online retailers simply because it makes the 30-day return window a complete hassle having to ship things back and forth – plus if you buy from a person, it’s easier to get help from them later, should you need a training session or something.

    Disclaimer: I work for RadioShack, though not in a retail store.

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  2. Even when there are live units, I’ve found that they don’t have service plans or have limited service. At an Apple store, you can make calls. Want to try FaceTime? Go for it. Apple also does a good job of making sure the devices have content so you get a more realistic experience, including sample emails, pictures and apps.

    Beyond non-working display units getting information on things like service plans can be a real challenge.

    This is the same problem that any new technology will face. For the same reasons, Apple has a big leg up with Apple TV over Google TV.

    I saw a live Sony Dash at Best Buy and the only thing on screen the whole time was a message saying it was searching for a network. I wrote up more about the Best Buy experience here: http://blog.agrawals.org/2010/05/24/can-google-cross-the-retail-chasm-with-google-tv/

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  3. The retail experience for technology, including smartphones, is generally awful because the manufacturers, service providers and OS providers really don’t believe in the value of retail. It is self-fulfilling — if we do retail badly then we can prove that retail is a bad choice. Soon enough, the nerd market for smartphones will be saturated and then it really will be necessary to do something more worthwhile in retail in order to garner market share.

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  4. Everything else in a Best Buy or Radio Shack is an actual working piece of equipment after all. You don’t see dummy laptops, or dummy LCD TVs, or dummy cameras. So what’s up with the cellphones. Laptops cost more than cellphones so I don’t understand the cost argument.

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    1. True, but those items also don’t require a data plan to function (properly, anyways). As the above commenter points out – it’s more than just a unit that powers on – consumers expect either a complete dummy unit or a completely ‘live’ unit, complete with service. The cost to supply that to all of the smartphones that Best Buy or RadioShack carries, across the carriers, would be outrageous. Also, none of the other stuff (laptops, LCD TVs, cameras) have the same fast turnover that cellphones do.

      Also, re: the comparison to the Apple store, I’ve never been to a retail laptop outlet (best buy, sam’s club, radioshack, circuit city, compusa, fry’s, etc) where the laptops had a working Internet connection. It’s definitely out-of-the-ordinary for the Apple stores to have their own Wi-Fi network. It’s something that sets them apart, and I’m definitely not saying that’s a bad thing, just pointing out that they’re the exception, not the rule.

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  5. It would sound form the argument that the solution isn’t so much live units but standards across various types of retail outlets towards the user experiences a purchaser should have. Much like what Ricky states, you only need a consistent ability to compare live devices, as many consumers for smartphones should be directed to price shop separate from getting a hands-on experience.

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  6. I agree with you Ricky on the cost argument for not having live Smartphone units across all BestBuys etc….and also on the fact that, what Apple does by providing live units is the exception and not the rule.

    But, that is exactly why I agree with Om that, Google should be the one stepping up here and setting up a chain of Android Experience Stores. The retail stores like BestBuys of the world dont have the margins to set those live units up like Apple and they have no incentive in building a brand for the Samsung / HTC or Google phones of the world. They only care about building their name as a retail store of CE products and sell lots of volume….

    However, Apple is both selling the product and building its premium priced brand with user experience and sees it as a key differentiator by providing an extraordinary customer / user experience. This does not always have to be physical only as shown by both Amazon and Apple online but the need is to differentiate your offerings through multi-channel settings and “Smartphones or Tablets” are cutting edge areas where you need the “wow factor with educational user experiences”….if you know what I mean.

    Clearly Google has the panache as a search brand but nobody sees it as a product company or even product platform which provides a great customer experience….hopefully they have learnt their lesson from their Nexus failures which totally lacked any form of customer service and see this opportunity to create a chain of Android experience stores. With Google getting more and more into direct to consumer products like Android phones, tablets, Google TV etc, this is a key for Google to learn and deliver an extraordinary “Product Customer Experience”.

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  7. Om, great to see you picking up this topic. I have similar thoughts, and so ended up at a company that is part of the mobile / interactive retail space (iQmetrix). The concept of online2offline – online experiences / exposure / apps driving traffic and sales to brick & mortar locations – is another trend that I think is connected.

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  8. Target won’t pay the extra for someone to be the resident geek in their phone/TV/camera/gamer niche.

    If they did, they would stick out from the rest of the staff.

    Best Buy could. Maybe those phone stores will do that.

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