Smartphones & The Importance of Retail Stores

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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

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