A Smartphone Key: The Retail Experience

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, its makers hoping to topple Apple's iPhone from the top of the totem pole. In this fiercely contested market, it's important for phone manufacturers to stand apart from others, whether via design, user experience, or special software offerings. Samsung, Motorola, and HTC clearly are going down this route.

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.)

nonworking replicas don't say much

The aisles of the store were full of phones from such brands as 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 Best Buy's word, major national carriers such as Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T were represented at the 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 nonworking 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. Instead, 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 important, 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.)

Educate potential smartphone buyers

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

I believe—because smartphones are decidedly more complex than feature phones, requiring some kind of familiarity with the user interface—that it's important to think differently about how these phones are pitched to 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: Set up a chain of Android stores or work with retail chains such as Target to build Google Android Experience kiosks, which would focus 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.

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