Sony Revamps Retail Stores


By Ian Sherr

Aiming to take a bite out of Apple Inc., Sony Corp. is revamping its retail stores, integrating the Japanese electronics behemoth’s sprawling product line into a sleek and fresh new look.

On April 1, Sony opened a self-branded store, in the high-end Westfield Century City Mall in Los Angeles. The store, with hardwood floors and sleek lighting fixtures, echoes Apple’s airy retail concept.

Sony’s Los Angeles store is the first in a series that is expected to replace the company’s existing chain of retail shops, called Sony Style. The Tokyo-based company hopes the renewed retail presence will reinvigorate enthusiasm for products, like its Vaio laptops and Walkman music players, both of which have been lapped by Apple’s competing devices.

Sony wants the retail effort to set its computers and televisions apart in the minds of buyers. That was one of the strategies behind Apple’s chain of stores, which helped solidify consumer identification of its products.

“It’s not an electronics store,” said Phil Molyneux, president of Sony Electronics in the U.S. “It’s a Sony Store.”

Sony’s new retail outlets mark a complete rethinking of its existing strategy. The roughly 30 existing Sony Style stores in the U.S. are cluttered. Many have dark lighting, resulting in a heavy mood. The new store designs take a different tack.

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(Published June 15, 2011, in The Wall Street Journal.)

Apple’s Retail Secret: Full Service Stores


By Yukari Iwatani Kane and Ian Sherr

Steve Jobs turned Apple Inc. into the world’s most valuable technology company with high-tech products like the iPad and iPhone. But one anchor of Apple’s success is surprisingly low tech: its chain of brick-and-mortar retail stores.

A look at confidential training manuals, a recording of a store meeting and interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees reveal some of Apple’s store secrets. They include: intensive control of how employees interact with customers, scripted training for on-site tech support and consideration of every store detail down to the pre-loaded photos and music on demo devices.

More people now visit Apple’s 326 stores in a single quarter than the 60 million who visited Walt Disney Co.’s four biggest theme parks last year, according to data from Apple and the Themed Entertainment Association. Apple’s annual retail sales per square foot have soared to $4,406—excluding online sales, according to investment bank Needham & Co. Add in online sales, which include iTunes, and the number jumps to $5,914. That’s far higher than the sales per square foot and online sales of jeweler Tiffany & Co. ($3,070), luxury retailer Coach Inc. ($1,776), and electronics retailer Best Buy Co. ($880), according to estimates.

With their airy interiors and attractive lighting, Apple’s stores project a carefree and casual atmosphere. Yet Apple keeps a tight lid on how they operate. Employees are ordered to not discuss rumors about products, technicians are forbidden from prematurely acknowledging widespread glitches and anyone caught writing about the Cupertino, Calif., company on the Internet is fired, according to current and former employees.

Behind Apple stores is Ron Johnson, 52, who J.C. Penney Co. confirmed Tuesday would become its new CEO in November.

Apple’s retail success is fueled to a large extent by demand for the company’s products. Retail analysts say many of Apple’s advantages over rivals such as Best Buy are technical: It sells a single brand, has far fewer products and has only a few hundred stores compared to Best Buy’s more than 4,000. As the company continues to expand, some analysts expect it to face more pressure to consistently execute good customer service. Some former employees say they have already seen the quality of Apple retail staff decline as the retail network has expanded and has fewer enthusiastic fans to choose from.

To read the rest of the story, either contact me directly or read more online at the WSJ: here. (subscription required)

(Published June 15, 2011 on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.)