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Google store could bring much-needed innovation to physical retailing

Google is likely to bring its significant resources to bear in reimagining the traditional retail experience when it opens its first bricks-and-mortar location, a move that could be imminent.

The technology giant is reportedly checking out a spot in New York’s SoHo neighborhood to open its first physical storefront, which could help the company build excitement around the brand, its growing hardware lineup and the Android operating system, similar to what Apple has achieved with its retail stores. Google has dabbled in retail before, having opened temporary Winter Wonderlabs in six cities this past holiday season.

“Google opening a permanent retail store in SoHo will be fun, but is unlikely to be a game changer for the Android platform,” said Jason Goldberg, Chicago-based vice president of the commerce practice at Razorfish. “We don’t yet know what products or services Google would even feature in the store.

“It could be a Google Glass demo and fitment experience, similar to the Google Winter Wonderlab pop-ups that went live last year,” he said. “It could be focused on Nexus branded products, or even centered around services like Google Local.

“What we do know is that it will be fun to see how Google envisions what a permanent retail store should look like. They are a great, innovative company with some really smart people, and I think we’ll all be a disappointed if they don’t reimagine some elements of the typical retail experience.”

Omnichannel experiences
It is not clear yet whether Google aspires to open just one or just a few stores that would serve as live laboratories or if they have aspirations for a global network of stores.

If they do end up opening only a small number of stores, there is likely to be a strong omnichannel element, with shoppers able to visit the store when in New York but having the bulk of their relationship remaining online.

Google’s growing hardware lineup includes Nexus smartphones and tablets, the Chromebook Pixel laptop and the Chromecast device for connecting televisions to the Internet. Additionally, the company has plans to offer its Google Glass eyewear and a smart watch to the public later this year.

These could all get a boost from consumers being able to try out the devices in person.

Additionally, Google would gain new and valuable insights from a retail store that could help it compete.

Future distribution strategies
A retail store could also help Google develop better content and marketing tools to support its channel partners.

“Today Apple has a significant advantage in having true retail practitioners in their organization, and this will give Google a chance to partially level that playing field,” Mr. Goldberg said. “It will also give them an opportunity to understand how new products, like Google Glass, sell in a physical environment versus online, which could shape their future distribution strategies.”

If Google were to sign a lease for a store on Greene Street, as a report in Crain’s New Business suggests it is close to doing, this would put it nearby an Apple store on the corner of Greene and Prince streets. The location would also place Google close to luxury brands Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton, which also have outposts on Greene Street.

Another report on Wall Street Journal’s Digits blog says Google has been hunting for the right SoHo spot since last fall.

Retail innovators
Mobile companies have been some of the leaders in retail innovation of late.

For example, a strong retail strategy has been one of the keys to Apple’s success.

Apple was the first technology brand to understand how an immersive retail experience could help it fit its products together into a holistic story for the consumer. By offering customer-centric services such as the ability to make an appointment to meet personally with a store associate and to have a device set up before leaving the store, the stores have been hugely successful.

Apple continues to look for ways to innovate its retail strategy, having hired the CEO from ultra-hip fashion brand Burberry last fall to run its retail division in a sign of the growing fusion of technology and fashion (see story).

Carriers such as AT&T and Verizon have both recently unveiled new store designs that are meant to better cater to the way consumers shop these days, with a mobile device in their hands (see story).

“To truly be innovative and compete with the retail experiences offered by competitors like Apple and Microsoft, Google needs to create a store experience that allows shoppers to fit Google and Android products into their lifestyle,” said Jim Crawford, vice president of technology and experience design at Chute Gerdeman, Columbus, OH. “Much like Verizon has done in its destination stores, where instead of pushing ‘product’ at shoppers, visitors are able to explore how mobile products fit into various lifestyles, like fitness, entertainment, travel, etc.”

Customer expectations
Google is not a complete newcomer to retail. In addition to the Winter Wonderlabs, the company also has employees inside Best Buy stores and works closely with retailers such as Walmart and Office Depot.

However, physical retail is a tough space to conquer, especially as consumers are spending more time shopping online. In fact, several big traditional retailers such as Staples, Aeropostale and Radio Shack all plan to close a significant number of stores this year.

“It is interesting to see such a dominate online player enter the brick & mortar space when we see so many traditional retailers struggling to keep their store fronts relevant,” said Jared Meisel, managing partner at Theory House, Charlotte, NC. “Obviously Google is playing a bit of catch up with Apple, and they realize consumer adoption of more innovative products like Glass may require face-to-face shopper engagement.

“The move on Google’s part to open a retail location demonstrates their desire to evolve away from being a software  oriented organization,” he said.

“While this is inline with some of their recent acquisitions like Nest, the challenge Google faces is building a unified brand across their efforts. Said another way, based on Google’s diverse portfolio, they are more similar to GE than Apple.”

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York