In-Store Testing, A Recipe That Sells
In Sterling, for example, there are three versions of a home theater. Each room contains a hardwood floor, a chair and a coffee table. But the real focus is on the electronics: In one room, there is a $9,479 package that includes a 42-inch plasma TV, satellite TV, TiVo and wall-mounted speakers. A touch-screen guide allows shoppers to watch a DVD or satellite television, both for sale.
In the computer department, a laptop is set up with wireless Internet and a printer. A few aisles over, new electronic games can be played on wide-screen monitors.
Maytag and Best Buy are betting the experience zones will give them a competitive advantage in a crowded market for appliances and electronics.
Maytag, the nation's third-largest appliance manufacturer, is chasing Whirlpool and General Electric. Best Buy is locked in what it expects will be a long battle with Circuit City Stores Inc. and now Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., which have moved aggressively into electronics.
The retailers said the product experimentation is especially designed to appeal to women. Maytag, for example, is putting its interactive stores "where women shop," said Spiekerman, the spokeswoman. Best Buy hopes that by demonstrating to women how gadgets work, it can begin to shake its image as what Damian calls "a male toy store for technology."
Damian said that in the past, electronics retailers have not directed enough of their marketing toward women. "It's a very underdeveloped audience," he said.
In a survey of more than 1,000 women conducted earlier this year by Frank About Woman, a marketing group in Winston-Salem, N.C., 92 percent said they are the primary decision makers when it comes time to buy big-ticket items.
Just how many consumers are actually using products inside the stores is unclear. Maytag said 40 percent of shoppers experiment with its merchandise. At Best Buy, some appliances, such as stoves, are not functional because of different safety rules in place for big box stores, the company said.
And Burke, the Indiana professor, warns that mock rooms take up valuable retail space in a store. "There are serious costs associated with it," he said.
For their part, consumers expressed surprise that is has taken mass retailers so long to realize they prefer a trial run. In the game section of the Sterling Best Buy recently, Jonathon Rippe, 18, was breaking a sweat to keep up with a new Sony PlayStation game that requires stomping on a foot pad.
"I won't buy a game until I try it," he said. "Either at a friend's house or here."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company