Marketer's Playbook Video: The Truth Behind the Unstore

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Retail giants from Sony, Apple, Samsung and Fuji are betting the future of brick-and-mortar has little, if anything, to do with actually selling product on site.

In fact, higher-ups at Sony Corp. in Japan had one demand for its retail outlet located at the base of its new Manhattan headquarters called Sony Square NYC: make it flexible.

With its magnetic wall panels, hidden LED TVs and removable displays, Steven Fuld, senior VP-corporate marketing at Sony Corp. of America, says Sony Square NYC is built to accommodate anything from in-store concerts, movie premieres, new product launches, private events to branded takeovers and will be remodeled every four to six weeks. In essence, it's set up to do everything but sell product.

"It's a necessary way to tell the brand's story about what we are. It gives people more of a reason to come in than just driving down to get the lowest-priced product that sits in a cardboard box in the back," he said.

But not everyone is buying into the concept of the unstore.

Michael Goldberg, CEO of retail-focused Zimmerman Advertising, says the idea of showrooming, selling by not selling, is more public relations stunt than revenue-generating business plan. He points to Samsung's recently opened 40,000-square-foot flagship located in the Meatpacking District as a near-perfect example.

"Take a look at what Samsung has done to one-up Apple, which is 'We won't sell you anything, we will sell you a donut, but not a washer.' It's amazing," Mr. Goldberg said. "It's a great store, but how many businesses can really afford to do that?"

In fact, Mr. Goldberg says even Samsung wouldn't be able to afford the price tag of its unstore if it weren't for its many other revenue-generating avenues. "In the quest to jump over a competitor, anybody can make a statement, but a future of retail where you can't buy things? I think that's more for press than for practicality."

The inherent risk of the unstore is not lost on Sony.

Customers can purchase some of the items at Sony Square NYC but they may have a hard time finding the single cash register. It's hidden from plain sight, tucked away in a back corner.

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