SonyStyle Store
July 2, 2004

I visited the SonyStyle store in the Stanford (N. Calif.) Shopping Center, just 178 steps from the planned Apple mini-retail store, and less than 1/2-mile from the Palo Alto retail store. The center consists of several separate buildings with plazas and fountains in between. Sony's store cuts through one of those buildings, with entrances on both ends of the long and narrow store.

First of all, it's an Apple rip-off attempt by any measure, from the existence of the store itself, to the printed calendar of store events, to the use of the phrase "digital lifestyle," to some of the product displays. However, as you'll see, the attempt fails for several reasons.

The front of the store is not impressive, with the colors and materials blending into the background of the center's other stores. The windows show Sony merchandise, but in a routine way that does not catch your eye.

Even before you cross the entrance threshold at either end of the store, you encounter the "concierge desk," a large curved, wooden piece of furniture that completely blocks the entrance and forces you to go either left or right as you enter the store. It's a concept totally unfamiliar to American shoppers, and would seem to discourage certain timid, browsing-type passersby from venturing into the store. In fact, when I approached the store, I wasn't sure if I would have to "check in" with the person behind the desk before I could enter the store--yikes! And yes, those are real bamboo stalks in a water-filled planter behind the concierge desk.

The interior uses carpeting in some areas, and tile floor in others. There are some wall graphics, but the walls are usually covered with single or bulk product displays. There is wood furniture, but also some formica-looking table tops and glass counters. There isn't a unified feel to the interior fixtures or furnishings.

There were about 10 staffers working inside the store, all less than 35 years old, and all wearing medium-gray polo shirts with black pants. The person behind the desk said "Welcome" when I arrived, and "Have a good day" when I left. I was approached several times by staffers asking if I was looking for anything specific, but it was a casual approach, and they moved on when I said, "…Just browsing."

The store is basically a mirror image, with the two concierge desks at either end, two circular product display areas inside of that, a center open section, and two dimly-lit, living-room type product display alcoves off to the side for TVs and sound gear.

The store carries the full range of Sony's consumer product line, including still photo, video, audio, games, and Sony music and films. In fact, computers represent a relatively small portion of the products on display. The most space seems devoted to plasma and LCD televisions, their associated sound gear, CDs and DVDs, and accessories (headphones, batteries, videotape, remote controls, etc.). Computers don't get any special treatment in this store.

Each major product on display is accompanied by a 1"x2" white card in a plastic stand-up holder--and there are lots of them! The cards show the item number and description, perhaps 4-5 bullet point features, and the retail price.

The store appears to be stuck between Apple's philosophy of selecting and displaying only the best six models of anything, and CompUSA's philosophy of stocking everything. There aren't areas that show Sony's computer digital lifestyle solutions, like Apple's computer-camera-camcorder type of displays. The only truely integrated displays are those for TVs and sound systems. There are also areas where Sony simply displays every model of particular products, such as their "wall of power," which has batteries for every camcorder and camera, AC adapters, car adapters, etc.

The computer displays, in particular, are strange. They were simply sitting on the counters, displaying whatever the previous user had done--strange windows were open, and odd applications were running. There was none of the uniformity of Apple's screensaver or demo programs, and no way to really perform any useful work (download your e-mail…no way). I couldn't make an Internet connection on any of the computers.

The lighting is a mix of sunlight from the two ends, high-intensity ceiling lights, and low-intensity lights for the two demonstration alcoves. You may be able to tell from the photos, therefore, that the store lighting burns pretty "hot" and "cold" as you walk through the store.

I've previously been told that this shopping center is a bus-load destination for tourists from other countries, and I personally confirmed that in the SonyStyle store by talking to several groups from Taiwan.

Which brings us to…what is Sony's purpose here? Apple has said it wants its retail stores to be profitable, yet also says they're also intended for general corporate marketing and brand awareness. In this case, it appears Sony wants the stores to be their consumer general stores, but also to provide a showcase for the entire line of products. It's a strategy that just doesn't quite succeed.

Overall, the experience doesn't match that of an Apple store--Sony has too many products to sell, which complicates both the display and arrangement of the store. Not only are you blocked by the concierge desk when you enter, you're visually presented with a confusing array of merchandise (some of which is hidden on the other side of display islands). There is no obvious organization to the store as you enter, so you have no idea which way to go. Even after 15 minutes, I had some difficulty deciding, "This is the computer section, this is the audio section..."

Far from "style," Sony has achieved only a collection at this store. They've tried to cram too much merchandise, and too many purposes into the store. If you need a certain battery, headphone or other accessory, it's probably here at the store. If you're visiting from Peru, you'd be fascinated. Sophisticated American shoppers won't be quite as accepting of this store.

a_storefront

The store is in between Coach and Sephora,
and across from Macy's

b_concierge

The so-called "concierge" desk is right at the
front entrance at both ends of the store.

c_longview

The store is about 100' long and 40' wide,
totaling about 5,000 s.f. of retail space

d_centersection

The display floor includes floor-to-ceiling
kiosks and walls of products

e_tvwall

One of the many areas devoted to TVs

f_spidercorner

Right next to one entrance is a section devoted
to Spiderman, the movie.

g_livingnook

One of two dimly-lit living rooms
to display TV and sound gear. This
alcove has a fireplace!