Another Big Tech player has unveiled plans to join the physical retail party, as Google has announced it will open its first-ever physical retail location in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. In a blog post, Google characterized its new retail location as “a space where customers can experience our hardware and services in a helpful way.”
Slated to open its doors to the public this summer, the New York City retail location will be the go-to spot for consumers looking to pick up Pixel phones, Fitbit wearables, Pixelbooks and Nest smart home equipment — or at least try out Google’s hardware. It’s not quite Google’s first dalliance with physical retail — the global search giant has played with small steps like pop-up shops in the past, usually launched alongside new product releases to give consumers a chance to interact physically with their product line-up. But for permanent retail fixtures, Google has consistently relied on its web presence to deliver its lineup of goods directly to consumers, alongside third-party retailers like Best Buy and Walmart for its in-person sales.
According to the announcement, Google hopes to offer consumers a physical experience that allows them to explore and interact with its full assortment of products. “We’ll have experts on hand to help visitors get the most out of their device, such as troubleshooting an issue, fixing a cracked Pixel screen or helping with installations. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a longtime Pixel user, are curious about our Nest displays or want to participate in one of the how-to workshops we’ll offer throughout the year — our team will be able to provide you with help that’s specific and personalized to your needs.”
This will all take place in a socially distanced and hand sanitizer-laden environment, with (at least at first) a cap on the number of customers allowed in the store to “ensure our customers feel safe during their shopping experience,” the post said.
If this all sounds a bit similar to the Apple Store experience, that’s because it is — and the outcome of this flagship location will likely determine whether (and how far) Google will expand its physical store.
But physical retail is hard to do well. Apple has enjoyed a lot of success with its stores and genius bars opening nationwide, and Amazon has moved rapidly and aggressively into physical commerce, opening grocery stores, book shops and convenience stores. But not every tech player has been so successful. Microsoft, for example, started opening a lot of Apple Store-reminiscent physical locations to great fanfare a few years ago, only to announce last June that it would be closing down its 83 stores because its online sales were growing more rapidly than physical retail.
Again, Google isn’t the first Big Tech brand to dive into physical retail. In fact, it is arguably late to the party: Facebook is now the only remaining player in the “Fearsome Five” to not have opened up a physical outpost in the world of retail.
Whether Google’s experience will be more like Apple’s or Microsoft’s remains to be seen. Whatever Google does, it will have to be better than offering an Apple Store clone with Google branding. As mentioned, Microsoft didn’t have much success with that approach. As it turns out, a big part of the Apple shopping experience relies on being Apple.
But if Google can find a way to make its physical retail journey its own — and can create a consumer journey that offers an inventive twist on the physical experience that delivers more than what the consumer can get online — the world’s largest search platform might just have a toehold that could be a launching point for many of their digital services.