Inside AT&T's First Major Foray Into Experiential Retail

Michigan Avenue Store Brings Together Latest Mobile Tech for Cars, Health, Entertainment

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(Crain's Chicago Business) -- I'm standing in a Michigan Avenue shop that 's white, stylish, interactive -- and not the Apple store.

The gleaming 10,000-square-foot space -- complete with an Apps Bar staffed by "app-tenders" and plenty of communal space to grab a seat and play with gadgets -- bears more than a passing resemblance to Apple's temple of retail design.

Inside AT&T's new flagship retail store in Chicago.
Inside AT&T's new flagship retail store in Chicago. Credit: Erik Unger, Crain's Chicago Business

But it's actually AT&T's new flagship store, set to open Friday on Michigan Avenue at Ohio Street .

The location marks AT&T's first foray into the trendy realm of experiential retail, where boring bricks-and-mortar shopping is spruced up with interactive interfaces and social media integration. The store's glossy white finishes, reclaimed teak wood accents and orange seating are a world away from a typical phone store's carpet-and-Formica gloom.

Despite the Apple comparisons, "we firmly believe there's no other store like this in the industry, period," says Kent Mathy, president of AT&T's north and central regions. "User experience is the highlight here, rather than the standard approach where the product is highlighted."

An 18-foot video wall greets customers with interactive content and product information. The main floor space is carved into so-called Lifestyle Boutiques that each highlight different consumer uses.

I was intrigued by the Get Fit area, filled with the latest heart rate monitors, WiFi scales and screens from which you can download various health-related apps. There's also a Chicagoland section where shoppers can buy Bulls- or Cubs-themed accessories and download tourist-friendly apps to navigate everything from the CTA to the Art Institute. Another corner lets users turn smartphone photos into old-school Polaroid-style prints.

Even if you wander in off the street and brazenly yank out a Verizon phone, Mr. Mathy insists, you will be embraced by non-sales-obsessed staff and encouraged to play, download and Polaroid-print for free. "All the possibilities here work with all smartphones, regardless of service, and we welcome everyone," he says.

Nearby, an area designed to emulate a high-end boutique boasts upscale tablet and phone accessories by designers including Oria Kiely and James Marshall. (Mr. Marshall, a Chicago street artist better known as Dalek, developed the popular "Space Monkey" cartoon characters.)

The other side of the store features museum-style exhibits that offer sneak peeks of future products in addition to showcasing current merchandise.

In one corner, a silver Nissan Leaf electric hatchback shows off a not-yet-for-sale phone docking station that automatically disables texting. Behind it, a huge screen plays AT&T "It Can Wait" commercials that campaign against texting while driving.

A few steps over, shoppers can record and create their own music, check out JamBox speakers that double as speaker-phones, or figure out how to set up an Xbox as a TV.

A kitchen-table vignette, detailed down to a bowl of oranges and coffeemaker, highlights the numerous automation methods by which AT&T can wirelessly secure your home…or keep tabs on your teenager via door sensors that send instant notifications.

The one thing that 's missing is the check-out counter. All transactions are completed by roaming sale associates clutching tablets.

AT&T isn't the only competitor developing its own "store of the future" to try to capture Apple's success. Microsoft Corp., which announced its own retail ambitions three years ago, now operates about 30 very beautiful (and very Apple-esque) stores in the U.S. and Canada, including one in west suburban Oakbrook Center. Apple itself has more than 350 stores.

But AT&T isn't plotting national expansion -- at least not openly.

"Right now this is the first and only store of its kind," Mr. Mathy says. "We have no preconceived notion of adding future stores or not."

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