Samsung's Branding Experience: the Unstore

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A new study found that retail stores are still relevant in this age of e-commerce. It seems that 69 percent of online shoppers browse through traditional stores before buying over the Internet. They like to feel, hold, try on and try out items first, says the study by the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future. (Couldn't they have just asked a cataloger?) Maybe this is why Samsung opened the Samsung Experience in New York last week, featuring absolutely nothing for sale -- just rows of cell phones, camcorders, laptops and other electronic devices. Following in the footsteps of Sony's Style store, Samsung calls it the Unstore.

An interesting idea, but I give it a year, maybe two.

Why? Because you can't buy anything. They won't even tell you the price of that cell phone you're interested in. It's a branding experience: to build relationships and prove that Samsung is a high-end product maker. If you have the urge to splurge, they will provide a list of nearby retailers. Samsung says it might add online kiosks so people could make purchases on the spot. Hmm, there's a thought. Several of the items aren't available in the United States, though by walking through the store -- I mean venue -- you can't tell which ones those are.

Samsung has created a virtual map of New York that can be manipulated with hand gestures, and it also lets people take products outside for a test run. For example, by handing over your credit card, you can borrow a hard-drive-based camcorder and shoot your own New York experience. You then return to the store -- dammit, I mean venue -- edit the footage and burn it onto a DVD. Since Samsung doesn't sell direct in any circumstance, not even online, this "unstore" mantra makes sense. But with no way to gauge response, it's a direct marketer's hell.

In at least one of the interactive features, Samsung collects names and e-mail addresses, but it's only to alert interested parties about new products and Samsung-sponsored symposiums and seminars. There also are dozens of CyberConduits situated around the space that change color if you're looking at a specific product (or if you're just walking by). These are wired to Samsung's Web site, and the online ones glow to show corresponding interest. Confused? Me, too. This sounds like one of those half-baked ideas thrown out during the dot-com frenzy a few years back.

If you find salespeople at your neighborhood electronics store too pushy, then go to the Samsung Experience. Just don't expect to walk out with much.

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