There was a time when Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, and their smaller cousins like Frey’s (Bay Area) and MicroCenter (Cambridge) etc, were awesome places to visit. These stores carried, above all else, the latest and the greatest in electronics and hardware products. I used to go and spend hours in such stores.
And then these stores got into trouble. Some went bankrupt, others shrunk in size/scope, and others continued to struggle on with enthusiasts and hobbyists frequenting them. There were lots of reasons for their demise but that’s not my concern here…what is to be noted is that while these stores’ futures were sinking, another amazing chain of hardware retail stores was surging at the same time: Apple. Yes, Apple stores had an amazing futuristic design which attracted an eclectic audience, but its hard to miss the fact they also had amazing products. Beautiful, simple, consumer-friendly devices that consumers wanted.
I spent a few hours at a Best Buy store this weekend (San Carlos, CA). I have to say I was quite surprised at how different it actually looked from what I remember of such stores. While the store looked different, and more modern with LED lighting, wider aisles and neatly laid out sections, what was really cool was that the stores prominently displayed and carried tons of products that were actually exciting! It wasn’t just all various sizes of TVs and DVD players, rather similar home entertainment systems, and aisles upon aisles of CDs and DVDs…the large sections were dedicated to aspirational, practical stuff people actually want. The hardware tsunami had clearly invaded the electronics retail store.
The store had large sections dedicated to products from large companies that define hardware (+software) technology today: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Samsung. I comfortably browsed through the various phones, tablets, laptops, computer monitors, accessories etc. In one place I was able to compare the Google Chromecast with Apple TV, and decided I wasn’t ready for either as yet. I saw 4K TVs and the latest cameras utilizing 4K sensors (e.g. GoPro Hero4). I didn’t see a 3D printer but maybe I didn’t look hard enough.
In another section I looked through a variety of robots, drones and fun things to play with. In yet another I saw the latest technologies for connected home displayed. From various types of IP cameras and associated cloud services to digital thermostats, smoke alarms, water flooding sensors, ice sensors, and connected light bulbs. I saw a young couple buying a Philips Hue internet connected LED light bulb to add to decorations for their newborn’s nursery!
I am glad to see this new generation of hardware/software products are finding relatively prominent shelf-space in big box retailers like Best Buy, Target, Home Depot etc. It is good for the stores and good for the consumer hardware industry. Kickstarter and Indiegogo have been great in promoting new hardware products to enthusiasts and to early adopters , but these companies eventually need distribution channels above and beyond the web, and choices have been limited in the past. In the process these retailers can possibly also rebrand themselves, and once again become an attractive place for young consumers to spend time (see also NYTimes: Electronics Retailers Scramble to Adapt to Changing Market). If done right, its a win-win for all parties.