Unshopping at the nonmall

Unshopping at the nonmall

: I’ve made many futureshock predictions that were bull and I thought this was one of them:

About five years ago, I sat with the boss and with Bob Lessin, damned smart VC, and predicted that some big retail outlets would be replaced by showrooms where you could see the merchandise that you could then buy online. The idea was that Amazon is efficient but isn’t always satisfying — you want to touch the stuff. And maintaining retail and local warehouse space and above all inventory may be convenient — but it is expensive and inefficient. So for big-ticket items (furniture, cars, electronics) a showroom could beat a store. And in the post-mass-market world, where I believe that unique or niche merchandise will make a comeback (eBay v. Walmart), a showroom would be far more effective than trying to blanket the country with inventory.

Even I didn’t fully believe what I was saying. It was theoretical, speculative, perhaps bull.

But now here’s a story in The New York Times reporting on just such a showroom for online sales:

new shopping complex in Ohio will try to combine the convenience of online stores with the hands-on experience of browsing at a mall.

Sometime near the end of 2006, the complex, called Epicenter, is scheduled to open in Columbus at the Polaris Fashion Place. The nucleus of Epicenter will consist of two parts – the Buypod, a hand-held electronic device, and electronic kiosks located throughout the mall.

Under the concept, customers will enter the mall and register their credit card information, which will then be put into their Buypods. As customers browse merchandise, they can use their Buypod – which, as the name suggests, looks something like an Apple iPod – to scan the labels of items they want to buy.

Although a small number of items will available to take home, most orders will be sent directly to the warehouse, where they will be filled and shipped. The electronic kiosks will print receipts and can be used to cancel orders, if needed.

According to Anthony Lee, Epicenter’s chief executive, Internet and catalogue retailers can use Epicenter to establish a place where their customers can feel, and in some cases try on, merchandise. The Epicenter design also offers the low overhead and reduced need for sales staff that online and catalogue retailers are accustomed to.

Retail has just begun to explode. And this will, in turn, continue to explode local advertising and media.

  • Sherard

    Hey Jeff. Had that same idea about 5-6 years ago myself. I think it’s an outstanding idea. Until there is a better way to see and experience a product online, some products beg for an actual real-life interaction before you buy.

  • Didn’t Gateway’s retail centers operate on much the same principle? Come in, play with the computers, kick the tires, then actually place the order on-line and have it delievered to your house?

  • Mumblix Grumph

    I don’t know…getting to play with something, just so it can be snatched away sounds like a loser to me.
    The reason I hate to buy on-line is the waiting involved. If I go to a store, make my decision and then shell out the dough, I want to take my item home, not play “Where’s The UPS Guy”.

  • Jim in Texas

    You took the words out of my mouth. I remember the WSJ article predicating that the GW stores were a big gamble and it seems they were right. Many (most?) of the GW stores have closed and I think that Mumblix hit on the main reason.
    We are hardwired to believe that when we go into a store and buy something, we take it home then. Heck, these days I can take a refrigerator home if I have a vehicle big enough to haul it!
    I guess we can be changed, gradually. My HDTV was too big and heavy and I had to wait until a day or so before it was delivered (and set up, forgot that point) But Iíll withhold my investor dollars until I can be convinced weíre ready for this.

  • An interesting similarity is REI, the outdoor retailer. While many in the space, such as Cabela’s, Bass Pro, etc… Build HUGE “super-stores”, REI uses kiosks that hook up to their online store to supplement inventory. So you can go to a smaller store and have access to a much larger inventory.
    I think this idea of a “showroom” is just taking that a step further.
    The thing I like about having a mall that’s nothing but showrooms is that I can still try things out, but don’t have to lug a bunch of stuff around or drop anything off in my car during the course of a shopping day.

  • JiminNJ

    Well, that concept should put an end to the smash and grab, as well as the the rack eaters in mall clothing stores. Hooray, finally a way to prevent scary situations while shopping.

  • GCW

    I think it’s cool, but it’s not that new of an idea.
    I think modern Sharper Image stores worked on this principle. Wasn’t the original Sears/Roebuck based on this, too?
    It also reminds me of International Shoe–travelling salesmen who only showed samples.

  • Skate

    This concept is a snore. People don’t go to malls to do mail order–they want instant satisfaction.
    There used to be several chain discount stores where all of the merchandise on display was for display only. You then took a tag to have your order fulfilled by the warehouse department on the spot. These were not considered high-end stores and I don’t think this concept with even greater delay from the warehouse will fly.

  • fpn

    Best Buy built a half-size store in my town, where you can order anything they don’t have in stock (which is quite a bit). It sucks. People don’t go shopping so they can wait for their goods, Jeff. Like Skate said, instant satasfaction- when we go to the goods, we expect to get the goods.

  • David C

    I’m with Skate, this strikes me as an awful idea, even worse than those “catalog showroom” stores. Worst of both worlds. OK, I can see it for “big-ticket” items, sure… but many/most of those segments already work that way. When I bought a recliner and a couch at the furniture store… I had to wait 2 weeks for delivery. When I bought an HDTV set, I knew I wouldn’t be able to just carry it out and put it in the car.
    Basically, for anything you *can* physically carry, I’d never want to shop this way, and for things I *can’t* physically carry, I’m probably already shopping this way.

  • Jim in Texas

    Heck I just remembered!!
    Sears did the same thing in the early 50’s simply because they didn’t have big box stores or enough inventory on hand to stock stores.
    I rememeber going with my mother into a small Sears (and Roebuck?) store front with some appliances, other white products and even household items and all she could do was order from the catalog.
    Everything old is new again.

  • I hate to shop. I buy online so I don’t have to go to a store. But there are some things you can’t buy online. Shoes. Fine jewelry. Tuna fish salad.
    Things you can buy online: electronics, music, movies, some clothes, books, other stuff that’s really standardized like tools or software.
    I think this non-mall idea is silly. People who want to shop will go to malls. People who don’t will try to buy online, except when it’s something that you really need to try-on, buy fresh, or just need to take home instantly.

  • I think such a concept could work, if the showroom owners make it a destination location, with food/coffee, comfy chairs and wifi. Build an environment where it’s not just acceptable for people to hang out, it’s welcomed. Like Jeff, Instapundit, or other bloggers have noted in the past places that encourage social engagement.

  • This is just about the worst idea I have ever heard. Way to combine the worst of both worlds. Please read more at http://powersausage.blogspot.com

  • Dan

    For those who think this is a snore/awful/silly idea, you seem to miss the main advantage of this approach–the price discounts such a “store” could offer due to reduced store staff & inventory costs.

  • Tom

    This is like many in-city car dealers, which stock a tester model, and the client then orders a desired model.

  • Skate

    Dan wrote:
    “For those who think this is a snore/awful/silly idea, you seem to miss the main advantage of this approach–the price discounts such a “store” could offer due to reduced store staff & inventory costs.”
    Like it is a new idea…This concept is old and predates the internet. Even before there were catalog show rooms there were traveling salesmen who used to go door to door with sample cases.
    As Artin mentioned, this is the worst of both worlds. It combines the inconvenience of having to drive to the mall with the inconvenience of waiting for the product to be shipped to you at a later date–with a shipping charge, no doubt.
    If I’m going to drive somewhere to look at a product that I can fit in my car, I want to pick it up then, not wait for it to be shipped to me. What is to keep me from looking at the product in this show room then ordering it from *someone else* online for less? People already do this with cameras and electronics, but the stores compete on the basis of being able to fulfill your instant gratification and because you can return it to a physical store. The show room would not have this advantage.
    How many times has Border’s or Barnes and Nobe offered to have a book shipped you that wasn’t in stock. I’ve always declined since if I’m going to mail order it I might as well get the discount by buying it from Amazon.

  • Cal

    Exactly Skate. I would like an example of a product that I don’t already buy online, that I couldn’t get cheaper elsewhere and take home that day to show me the benefits/discounts. I can’t think of one.

  • JohnnyL

    I believe quite a few of you are missing the point. I got the impression that this mall would be for brand items that normally could be bought online only from a single website. This way you could actually see and feel something before ordering. Too many of you are still operating in the old dichotomy of keeping your online/at home in front of the computer activities separate from your out of the house activities. For the right items, I’d have no problem going to an online mall to see the merchandise first.

  • Skate

    “Too many of you are still operating in the old dichotomy of keeping your online/at home in front of the computer activities separate from your out of the house activities.”
    I’d argue that this is not an “old dichotomy” but the current one. I can’t tell you what will work best for you, I can only say this idea does nothing for me and provides only hassle, not benefit, for me.
    Arguing over it is fun, but the real proof will be the market. I predict failure.

  • Haven’t there been stores like this for some time? Like furniture stores? How is this new at all?

  • Ryan Booth

    My wife and I were shopping in the mall last week, and she wanted a certain pair of shoes for our daughter at the Gap. They were out of stock in her size, so the clerk ordered it online for us and we had the shoes two days later. Sometimes it’s not a problem to wait for the UPS guy.