hen talking about Apple’s rise from near-bankruptcy to become the most valuable company in the world, people often credit the amazing string of products from the iMac to the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad. And rightfully so. But just as important was another piece of the puzzle that ensured said products would find mainstream appeal and acted as an accelerant for Apple’s success: the Apple Stores.
When Apple first got into the retail game a little over a decade ago, many people scoffed. In hindsight, Apple seems to do quite well when people scoff (see: here and here) — it sort of makes sense, if an idea was obvious, others would have done it. But others in Apple’s position had tried to do retail and failed (see: Gateway — complete with cows out front — Sony, etc).
Yet Apple became the most effective and prized retailer in the world.
Naturally, this led others to take a page from Apple’s playbook. Notably, Microsoft. And while the experiment is ongoing, so far, those stores do not appear to be taking off in the same way. So when you hear the news that Google is considering opening their own retail stores as well, you might, well, scoff. But I think that would be a mistake. I think Google could be poised to nail retail as well.
With the news today about the Chromebook Pixel, the pieces are all starting to come together. Google says it’s selling that product through the Google Play online store and through Best Buy’s and Currys PC World’s websites. (And they’ll be available to use, but not buy, inside some Best Buys and Currys.) That won’t be good enough.
Google has been attempting to sell various Nexus products through their online stores for years now. The results have ranged from some success (Nexus 4) to fail (Nexus One) to major fail (Nexus Q). The Best Buy results seem mixed as well. While Chromebooks are finally seeing some traction, it’s still minimal despite the reach of Best Buy.
What Google needs for these products is what Apple needed a decade ago: their own stores that they’re in complete control of to showcase their products.
You have to believe Google knows this — hence attempts to create Chromebook sales areas staffed by Google employees in places like airports. But they need permanent hubs. They need central locations in cities around the world where people know they can go for all their Google needs. They need people in those stores to play with their products. And they need Google-trained employees there to answer any questions. It’s not good enough anymore to see a spec sheet online. We’re in an era of new usage paradigms. Hands-on time is key.
This is especially true for Google with products like the Pixel and soon Google Glass. Average consumers are never going to buy these products online without having tried them first. These are not standard PCs that are simply faster than the last PC you bought.
AVERAGE CONSUMERS ARE NEVER GOING TO BUY THESE PRODUCTS ONLINE WITHOUT HAVING TRIED THEM FIRST.
Okay, but how can Google Play Stores (the presumptive name) follow in the success of Apple Stores and not the mediocrity of Microsoft Stores? By not exactly copying Apple.
One of Microsoft’s mistakes with their stores is that they’re carbon copies of Apple Stores. Anyone who walks into one immediately feels this. It was an obvious but insanely stupid strategy on Microsoft’s part. Microsoft is trying to play to Apple’s strengths instead of their own. And in the process they’re reinforcing just how good Apple is at what they do.
In the beginning, Apple Stores made sense because Apple was generally considered to make high quality products. But that can only be truly appreciated when consumers use them. And because OS X (and later iOS) were not as ubiquitous as something like Windows, there was a large barrier to entry in people buying their first Apple product. And big retailers were reluctant to give a lot of space to Apple at their stores because of their low market share. Classic chicken-and-egg. Apple neededtheir own physical stores.
I’d argue that they were the single most important factor in the iPhone’s success as well. Without the stores, Apple wouldn’t have had the same leverage over the carriers. They would have needed those carriers to sell the phones and would have likely had to strike some unsavory deals with those devils as a result (like another company that’s the focus of this post).
That Apple nailed other elements like the Genius Bar was just a very smart cherry on top of the strategy.
Microsoft has had almost the opposite problem. Basically everyone both knows and has used Windows, Office, etc. Retailers have been awash with PCs for decades. Yet Microsoft still decided to copy Apple’s store model. You could argue that they now need these stores to get people to play with their Surface products. But I’d argue that doesn’t help because those products are simply not very good. That is still the key, remember.
(Honestly, Xbox may be the best thing those stores have going for them, going forward. Microsoft may be wise to pivot the focus. Come for the Xbox, stay for the Surface and Windows 8. Maybe. Please.)
CONSUMERS NEED TO KNOW WHAT THE HELL GOOGLE GLASS ACTUALLY IS.
In contrast, Google products have been improving since the first Android and Chrome OS products. And they seem to be at the point where they’re ready to be showcased in a retail experience. People need to know firsthand if they can replace their BlackBerrys or *shudder* iPhones with the Nexus 4 (yes yes, my thoughts on that device are still coming — it’s tough when you have another day job). They need to know if they can really use a laptop with an OS that is essentially just a web browser. They need to know what the hell Google Glass actually is.
But again, these Google Play Stores shouldn’t be Apple Stores. They shouldn’t be stark white minimalist spaces of carefully crafted wood, cement, and glass. They should look like Google products. They should be colorful and sort of playful. There should be a self-driving car in there. There should be Google Glass stations. Android devices galore. Chromebook areas. Maybe even Google TV. (Maybe.)
Every machine should be connected to the web (maybe via Google Fiber?) and prominently displaying Google.com or Google Now. Another key insight Apple had for Apple Stores was to let people play with their machines as they would in their homes. I recall going to stores like CompUSA back in the day and only being able to see PCs with canned demos playing on the screen. Those places didn’t want people just hanging out and using their machines. Huge mistake.
Microsoft would love people hanging out in their stores like they do in Apple Stores. Yet they don’t. Maybe that means internet access isn’t enough. So maybe Google should do something I always wish Apple would do: open a coffee shop in the stores (Google Ventures did just pour some moneyinto Blue Bottle Coffee — just saying). Make the Google Play Store a destination for the connected wanderer. Loiter all you want, just keep $earching for thing$.
Other companies now look at Apple Stores with their mouths agape. $6000 in revenue per square foot — double their closest retail counterpart, Tiffany & Co (motherfuckin’ Tiffanys!). But that can’t be the focus. That can’t be why Google is getting into this business. It has to be all about showcasing great products that simply need a bit of hands-on time (or a bit of hand-holding) to be truly understood and cherished.
It feels like Google is primed for this.