(c) 2013, The Washington Post.
(c) 2013, The Washington Post.
WASHINGTON — The Internet was supposed to have killed physical retail. It's a persistent narrative: Malls are hollowing out, restaurants are taking over shopping strips, and Cyber Monday will soon make Black Friday obsolete. In the age of Amazon, when purchases are just one click away, why does anyone need a store?
All those trends are real. At the same time, however, the biggest tech companies are realizing that they've got a lot to gain from reaching customers in real life. For example, eBay has devised a "digital storefront," like a giant computer in a mall, for viewing products and getting them delivered later. Online-only fashion outlets are staging pop-ups in tony District of Columbia neighborhoods.
And now Google has opened temporary shops in six locations around the country for the holidays, in an admission that even the most quintessential Internet company needs some square footage when it comes to selling actual stuff.
Google's foray into the physical world has been rumored for almost a year now, despite management's protestations that it wasn't necessary. Its first actual step, though, is very tentative.
Walk by the "Wonderlab" on the first floor of the Annapolis (Md.) Westfield Mall, at the intersection of Fossil and Crate & Barrel, and you just might miss it. Seven T-shirted staffers — light blue shirts, accented by gray scarves studded with festive Android pins — lean on iceberg-like benches, never straying from the cream-colored mat delimiting the space. Backlit tabletops set off the brand-new Nexus tablets and Chromebooks. There's no frenzy; people drift through to swipe at the gadgets, which don't have much to offer as far as diversion. A tablet is a tablet, and the Chromebook is special only for its low price — $270 — and lack of features.
In the place of a blockbuster new product — like, say, Google Glass, which isn't on display on a recent visit — the Wonderlab has a giant white orb that people are supposed to enter, after donning cartoonish winter clothing from a box outside, and goof off for the cameras as fake snow blows around them. Visitors can collect a small blue card that puts them in the Snow globe queue if they swipe it on the back of a Nexus and enter their contact information. Swipe again, and the videos are uploaded to YouTube, rendered in slow motion, to share with all the world.
A sign at the entrance cautions participants that the footage may be used in Google advertising. "If you do not want to be recorded, please sit behind the cameras," it reads. The warning may be a courtesy, but it serves as a reminder of just how much data Google collects on its users through less up-front means.
The snow globe was broken when I showed up; a technician had arrived to fix the snow blower. I asked one of the employees what it had to do with Google, exactly.
"Nothing, it's just a fun Google-like thing," he answered. Unlike employees at Microsoft and Apple stores, these staffers were contracted from an outsourcing agency called Marketstar. They knew enough about the products to explain them, but probably wouldn't be able to fix something that went wrong, or convincingly communicate why they're better than the competition.
As a retail experience, the Wonderlab failed in two ways.
The first is a branding problem. Google cut a deal with mall owner Westfield, so with the exception of the Bryant Square location in New York, they're all sequestered away in dull suburban spots rather than centers of urban activity where they might've made more of an impression — like, for example, Washington's Union Station. The Annapolis version seems more like a speedbump in the mallscape rather than a genuinely interesting new presence that could communicate the meaning of "Googliness" to the masses, and associate that powerful brand with the stuff it's got for sale.
The second is a product problem. Despite the snow globe gimmick, Google just didn't have much to show off — not even its new Moto X phones. The display might've directed a few people toward the mall's Best Buy, where they could take a Nexus or a Chromebook home with a $25 coupon. But if they were in a mall with a mind to buy a tablet or basic laptop, they might've done that anyway.
If Google really wants to use the real world to push product, it's going to need to think bigger. At this point, it's better at controlling other companies' marketing than its own.