Google – home to all things Internet, including the eponymous search engine, YouTube, Blogger, Google Maps, Google Earth and many other well-known products and services – has taken the, some might think, unusual step of opening its first-ever ‘bricks and mortar’ shop in London’s Tottenham Court Road.
Yes, Google, the second most valuable brand in the world (behind Apple), has recently set up a new Google-branded shop – a shop within a shop – inside Currys PC World where it will sell the company’s range of Android phones and tablets, Chromebook laptops, and Chromecast TV services. The shop will also hold tutorials showing customers how Google devices work together and demonstrating Google apps.
‘Fun’ features include a Doodle Wall where budding graffiti artists can use digital spray cans to paint their own version of Google’s iconic logo, and customers will also be able to use a giant Android immersive screen called the ‘Portal’ to ‘fly’ over different parts of the world. If all goes to plan, two more stores are promised later on this year in Currys PC World’s Fulham and Thurrock Megastores.
In a statement, Google said “This is the first Google shop experience Google has opened anywhere in the world.”
Back To The Future
So, what’s behind the opening of the Google shop? Surely the retail trend is to move inexorably towards online shopping and away from physical stores with their high fixed costs, limited product ranges and last century inflexibility?
Well, yes and no. That certainly used to be the case. But so-called ‘pureplay’ retailers are now beginning to look enviously at physical stores who have successfully managed to combine on- and off-line models to get the best of both worlds. Online retailers recognise that the ability to give customers a real-life experience of their products and services can pay dividends and lead to actual sales. And this is what Google undoubtedly has in mind – giving customers a real-life flavour of the Google brand and the chance to see its products and services in action – raising awareness and getting more ‘touchy-feely’ at the same time.
Once upon a time Google was known exclusively for its online products, but with the launch of its mobile OS, Android, and then Nexus consumer electronic products, it started to become known for its own devices as well.
In the UK, Google has already worked with Curry’s and PC World to bring ‘Chromezones’ into stores, areas where users can try out Chromebooks (laptops that run the Chrome OS) and other Google products with a Chrome Specialist on hand to help. The new store may end up being a loss-leader, but attracting footfall in the UK’s busiest consumer electronics shopping street, creating a buzz, generating a Google ‘experience’ and the chance for Google to get customer face-time in real-time could more than make up for that.
Another reason is to build the Google brand. Branding is one of the best ways of differentiating between various competitors who are fighting it out on price. What better way to communicate your brand values than allow your customers to have a real-life, actual physical experience of your organisation in a shop? Google prides itself on its distinct personality: it changes its logo for holidays, to celebrate the birthdays of famous people and it makes jokes on April Fools’ Day. Everything it does, is aimed at humanising its brand face and showing itself as a small, friendly company that reflects the personalities of its two founders.
Upsetting The Apple Cart
So, it may not be an all-singing, all-dancing Apple-style retail shop just yet, but it’s certainly a small, first step. At the Apple media event on 9 March, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said that around 120 million people visited the 400+ Apple Stores in the fourth quarter of 2014. While Apple earns only about 12% of its annual revenue from these retail locations, it derives huge benefits that reach far beyond simple sales. Marketing, customer relations, and customer support, in the form of Genius Bars, have all made Apple stores a massive draw.
So let’s be clear, this is not all about selling; Google has, perhaps rather belatedly, realised, that omnichannel shopping is a huge trend just now and that customers don’t just want to compare prices and order online, by tablet or smartphone, they want to ‘try before they buy’ – seek out the goods, hold them in their hands and play around with the different features, before they hand over their cash. A Google store will show how users can make their lives as seamless as possible. It’s a ‘try-before-you-buy’ experience.
The message here I think, is that, if Google can do omnichannel, then every retailer needs to think about doing it as well – that is, integrate, customer service across all their channels – physical, phone, online, and so on. The challenge is to find the technology to enable it. Siloed legacy IT is often a significant barrier to meeting the challenge of omnichannel, but technology can also the answer to making it happen.