Google’s stores are a lame challenge to the magic of Apple’s retail stores.


Is this a Google Winter Wonderlab or an Apple store? It’s hard to tell the difference, which is a problem for Google as it introduces retails spots like this one in Annapolis. ( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan/The Washington Post)

When it comes to innovative brick-and-mortar retail concepts, it’s hard to argue with the success of the Apple retail store, which was first launched in 2001. While the Apple store concept may not be as buzzy as when it launched more than a decade ago, the fact remains that not a single tech competitor has been able to come up with a retail concept superior to it. So, when Google announced that it was establishing a series of Winter Wonderlab pop-up stores across the country for the holidays, it was only natural to ask: Had Google finally created a radically new retail concept to challenge Apple’s brick-and-mortar stores?

Based on my early experiences at Google’s Winter Wonderlab in New York’s Bryant Park, the answer is no.

A look at Google's store in New York's Bryant Park. (Dominic Basulto for The Washington Post)
A look at Google’s store in New York’s Bryant Park. (Dominic Basulto for The Washington Post)

The entire design concept for the Winter Wonderlab seems borrowed from Apple, including the way the products are laid out and presented, the minimalist feel of the space, and even the pastel T-shirts worn by the staff. While it’s nice that Google has simplified its product line to only focus on a few offerings – the Nexus 7, the Chromebook, Google Chromecast and Google Play — even this seems like a nod to Apple, which has one of the most simplified product lines in the tech world. The overall design of Google’s store — a glass cube across from the ice skating rink in Bryant Park, too, seems borrowed from Apple’s glass cube flagship store on Fifth Avenue across from Central Park.

The highlight of the Google Winter Wonderlab is the Snow Globe – a place to film yourself with fake snowflakes and share slow-motion videos of yourself with friends later using Google products such as, you guessed it, the Nexus 7. But hasn’t even this been done before – a company sets up a cool prop, takes photos or videos of visitors with said prop, and then asks visitors to share this photo or video with as many people as possible on social media? That’s not a retail strategy, that’s a marketing strategy.

Instead of placing the Winter Wonderlab in Bryant Park, steps away from Times Square, Google could have done something that would have appealed more to tech early adopters in New York’s Silicon Alley. What about a Wonderlab near Google’s Chelsea offices – perhaps under the High Line, like UNIQLO did? Or in a swanky loft in Chelsea Market, like it did with Google Glass? In all fairness, Apple’s first two retail stores were also in non-trendy areas – a mall in Tysons Corner and a mall in suburban Los Angeles – but that’s why Google’s choice of retail locations — Bryant Park in New York and a bunch of high-traffic suburban malls – seems uninspired. The Wonderlab is not so much a research and development playhouse as just a way to hawk products in America’s highest-traffic shopping areas.

The one innovation concept that Google could have been sharing with holiday shoppers – Google Glass – is nowhere to be seen. And any of the other cool Google concepts we’ve been hearing about — like the driverless car or the hot air balloons to deliver Wi-Fi – are also nowhere to be seen. In other words, Google had a chance to turn the “Wonderlab” into a “lab of wonders.” Instead, a casual visitor to the Wonderlab (most likely, a tourist and not a native New Yorker) walks away with the impression that Google is simply following the path blazed by Apple more than a decade ago.

That’s disappointing.

Google has done so many innovative things in New York recently — from bringing free Wi-Fi to New York subway stations in 2012 to donating office space to engineering schools – that the Wonderlab concept initially seemed exciting. Google has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for New York’s tech scene. Just last month, Google announced that it was turning most of Chelsea into a massive free Wi-Fi zone. Every city probably has a similar type of Google story, about something “cool” that Google did to make their city think differently about tech and foster a digital culture. Those intangible feelings should be the bread-and-butter of any Google retail concept — and quite possibly, the only way to create something that would make people want to hang out in a Google store rather than an Apple store.

Maybe the direction that Google should have taken was along the lines of what was earlier conjectured about the Google Barge – some type of radical playground for technology that takes place offshore. In order to create a truly innovative retail brick-and-mortar concept, that’s the type of innovation required if companies ever want to dethrone Apple as the king of the retail store concept.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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