I’m neither religious nor bought into the technology retailing cult that is Apple. As a result, I have a similar sensation when I enter into a church or an Apple store; a strong sense of being in the wrong place combined with a curiosity as to why so many people have gathered together to worship a dead hippy. The sense of adoration these days, though, seems much stronger in the Temple of Cupertino – as a devotee put it to me recently “Apple stores are the only shops I go to to look at products I already own.”
The die for technology retailing has been recast by Apple. Before we had Radio Shack (Tandy in the UK), Maplin or Dixons, or the dives of Tottenham Court Road. Today we have gleaming steel and glass emporia. People trying to follow the Apple path run the risk of comparison, and to probably come up short.
Microsoft stores, a concept still to make it out of North America, are a mildly embarrassing wannabe. Like Apple stores but with unnecessary splashes of primary colours and an absence of desirable Apple products. My limited experience is that staff generally outnumber punters (and I’ve only visited when the town in question had been teeming with Redmond employees). That they haven’t expanded out of the US (and Canada) speaks volumes.
Google last week managed to garner a remarkable amount of publicity for the opening of their first retail store anywhere in the world. Google have distinctly not followed the Apple model by stretching the definition of a shop to quite an extreme. A less charitable description of what’s been created at the front of the Currys PC World on Tottenham Court Road would be window display. Alongside the few Google-badged products (Nexus and Chrome lines), there are a couple of interactive installations and a Heath Robinson machine in the front window. There’s no cash register- sales are just booked by Curry’s – but a few staff to help explain concepts like the Chromebook (as a free bit of advice, a better sales pitch would be “has your grandmother seen Windows 8?” than some of the twaddle I overheard in selling a Chromebook…)
There is a big question about why Google should bother. I get the concepts of brand building, but if you wanted a model for that there are far better archetypes- the Puma retail experience, for example. Tottenham Court Road (especially the Warren Street end) is just off the main thoroughfares enough for people to need to want to go there (and thankfully the internet appears to have killed off the rather dodgy electronics shops that used to be at the other end of the road). Surely better to be brand showcasing at Selfridge’s or Westfield, or even a mainline train terminal?
Ultimately the Google Shop is a triumph of PR. It’s not a shop in any conventional sense but has picked up remarkable coverage in the tech, design and general press. And I guess that that is it’s main purpose. What will be interesting is if they extend the concept further…