Temporary “pop-up” stores are common during the holidays, but the new storefront that opened earlier this week inside the Westfield Galleria at Roseville has attracted an unusual amount of attention. That’s because this holiday store is being run by Google – one of just six sites around the country chosen by the tech giant to launch its experiment with brick and mortar retail.
As usual, Google isn’t saying much about its plans, so retail and economic analysts are left to ponder what the Mountain View company hopes to achieve with its Winter Wonderlab stores, and why Roseville made the cut while the Bay Area was apparently left off the list.
The stores are attention getters. They contain an igloo-like dome where customers can get slow motion videos of themselves cavorting amid swirling virtual “snow” and “snowballs.” The stores allow customers to test Google products such as Nexus 7 tablets, Chromebook computers and Chromecast streaming media players. But this showroom is for looking only: Customers have to go online to actually buy the products.
According to Google release materials, the Wonderlabs will close by Dec. 24, and retail experts believe Google officials will then huddle to look at the numbers and determine the future of the concept.
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Google’s website simply refers to the local store as a “Sacramento” site. That’s part of a pattern. The other five metro locales listed on Google’s website are Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New Jersey, which is actually a state. The “flagship location” of Bryant Park on West 40th Street in New York is indeed in the heart of midtown Manhattan.
The other four Wonderlab sites, however, match up like Roseville’s relationship to Sacramento – a suburban community outside a larger urban core, all of them at Westfield malls. The Washington, D.C., Wonderlab is actually in Annapolis, Md.; the Chicago site is in Aurora, Ill.; the Los Angeles store is in Canoga Park; and the New Jersey outlet is in Paramus, N.J., north of Newark and New York City.
Sally Hamilton, a professor at Drexel University’s graduate business school in Sacramento, speculated that Google is “looking for markets in the coast states, areas that are tech savvy and follow Google. They’re fairly populous areas, but they’re not going for the great big cities. They want to get in front of the suburbs and get in front of consumers, where lots of people congregate to shop. They’re still close to the major metro cities, but it’s very low risk from their perspective.”
Hamilton figures that Google is “testing the waters on having physical locations just like the Apple stores” but is limiting the study to only six Wonderlab sites because “they don’t want to put a lot of money into it in case it crashes and burns.”
Hamilton also offered this: “Sacramento for years used to be one of the top market-testing places in the country. Our overall demographics are roughly the same as California in a sense. It has been that way for quite a while. Now, did that change with the Great Recession? I don’t know. ... But (Google) is smart enough to realize that Mountain View is not the center of the universe.”
The Wonderlab at Roseville’s Westfield Galleria is a smaller, flashy tweak of the typical Apple brick-and-mortar store.
Last week, a small army of blue-shirted employees were helping customers handling products on long tables in the Apple store inside Westfield Galleria. Just a short walk away, a similar scene was found at Google’s Winter Wonderlab, only scarf-wearing workers were sporting more of an ice-blue winter look and helping customers with products outside the glowing snow globe.
Mary Monahan, an executive vice president and research director for Javelin Strategy & Research in Pleasanton, last week called the Wonderlab effort a “smart move,” noting that “Apple has done so well with its stores, and Google sees the same opportunity. People want to touch, play and see things in their hands, especially high-end (electronics). That really affects their buying decisions."
Peter Schaub, a New York-based marketing and branding expert, also likes what Google is doing: “They’ve spread it out over key metro markets for the busy holiday season. I think that’s a good way to get important consumer feedback without spending a ton of money.”
Others have not been impressed.
In a recent online post on 24/7 Wall St., Douglas A. McIntyre takes Google to task for thinking too small: “During a holiday season in which retailers large and small will do whatever they can to attract consumers, the Wonderlab will be lost in the sea of foot traffic. Google has gone too small with the project, which will get it a day of publicity, but little more.”
Customers visiting the Wonderlab in Westfield Galleria last week were mostly positive, and some were slightly confused.
“I thought it was a holiday decoration. I thought Santa was in there,” laughed Roseville resident Ronald Perry.
“I think it’s a really cool idea,” said Helen Johnson-Cox, who made the trip out from Sacramento to shop with friends. “They have a lot of helpful people, and I like that. I’m not a techie expert by any means, so I like it when people come up to help me. ... Sometimes, I feel intimidated in other places.”
Perhaps adding to the Winter Wonderlabs’ allure is the mystery surrounding them. Google spokesmen have repeatedly, politely declined to disclose details about the placement and potential future of the pop-up stores.
“I think that air of mystery actually gives them more attention than they ordinarily would get,” New York analyst Schaub said.
That’s nothing new for Google, which has long cited the ultra-competitive nature of the electronics/online industry as a reason for playing it close to the vest. Last month, word leaked out that Google had been secretly building a large, floating structure inside a covered bay on Treasure Island in San Francisco. Amid wild speculation, Google finally said it would "an interactive space where people can learn about new technology."
The story made headlines worldwide.
Some retail analysts say Google’s Wonderlab is yet more evidence that physical stores still matter during the holiday shopping season, when people increasingly buy online.
The Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation is projecting that 140million people will shop over the upcoming, four-day Thanksgiving weekend, with a significant number looking over the latest electronic devices and gadgets. NRF President Matthew Shay says 33million are expected to “take in the festive sights and sounds” on Thanksgiving Day alone.
“You can’t ignore those numbers,” Schaub said. “That’s millions of people out spending dollars, not sitting in front of a computer.”
Drexel’s Hamilton believes that “when it comes to big-ticket electronics, shoppers sort of want to get their hands on it and take it for a test ride,” before buying.
To that end, Best Buy is touting on-site personnel for electronics shoppers asking questions that they might have trouble finding answers to online. The chain is also offering to match discounted online prices.
Best Buy’s moves have been characterized as a direct response to “showrooming,” which refers to a shopper visiting a store to examine and check prices on certain products up close, but then purchasing those same items for typically lower prices online. In recent years, analysts said Best Buy has been a primary “showroom” of products that shoppers ultimately end up buying on Amazon.com.
Best Buy has even been airing TV commercials touting its stores as “your ultimate holiday showroom.”
Officials said Google’s Winter Wonderlabs will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, but they will be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Black Friday.