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Apple stores versus Sony stores

A little over a decade ago it was as fashionable to praise Sony and bash Apple as the reverse is today. The New York Times indulges in the latter. One retail consultant cited in the story exhibits impressive buzzword proficiency in griping that Sony Style stores are not “energized” and “shop-able.” Another floats closer to Earth in saying that Sony’s stores lack an “emotional connection” before concocting that Apple store visitors just “walk in, absorb the fumes and feel like the smartest technophile in the world.” Hey, if Apple could patent that magical vapor, they sure wouldn’t need the Genius Bars.

Randall Stross, the piece’s author, also takes aim at those foolish but uncited analysts who predicted Apple store failure. Judging from the prediction, though, it sounds like they were financial analysts. As the article notes, flagship stores are now all the rage and there may be more to come.

I’m probably not on the record for it but, Gateway stores be damned, I knew the Apple stores would be at least a partial success because of the company’s well-established brand loyalty. However, that would have extended only to the then-faithful. I thought that much of the Apple stores’ growth would cannibalize that of independent dealers and surely some of it has. (That said, I recently stopped in at Tekserve, where I received the usual excellent level of service, to find it thriving as I’d never seen it — and I used to live around the block from it. Tekserve complements the Apple store very effectively, and its strong focus on Mac repairs has probably paid off handsomely as Apple has revitalized.).

What I didn’t see was how effective the Apple stores would be at exposing Apple to new buyers. Some of that came down to execution and some of it to the iPod. The revitalized Mac line also helped, even before the Intel transition at which point the stores were already ravenously grazing cash cows.

Anyway, turning back to Sony, the author of the Times’ piece merely alludes to the electronics giant’s product breadth, noting that it “would seem to give it a significant advantage over Apple.” To the contrary, Sony’s product breadth and the size of its showcase product category — large-screen television — make it more difficult to merchandise effectively. Furthermore, as “video rooms” consistently show, those TVs are best highlighted in dark rooms with comfortable furniture — more Starbucks than Apple Store.

Finally, Sony’s broader distribution and overall shelf share across other retailers cast Sony Style as a relatively stronger branding play than Apple stores. Yes, Apple stores reflect the brand brilliantly, but even Apple’s excellent post-sale support in the store is product-focused. So, ignoring how the Sony Style stores were, as the article notes, conceived and also noting that Sony has lots of room to improve, the direct physical store channel has different strategic goals for each company.

But here’s the scary part. Much of Apple’s success in simplicity is often attributed to integration. Yet that message is only implied at the Apple stores today. It may be too early to drive that home with an emerging product category such as Apple TV, but as Apple builds out its three-screen strategy — perhaps after the imminent release of the iPhone — there is a lot of cross-selling potential in being more explicit about how its products work together. Today, iTunes is the center of that strategy, and, as one “Get a Mac” commercial notes, iTunes is but one of the iLife applications that complement it best on the Mac.

Sony also has this opportunity, but it remains to be seen what will be the glue to its “better together” strategy as it slowly moves away from exclusive technologies such as Memory Stick and ATRAC.