ROSEVILLE, Calif. — The glowing winter wonderland inside the mall here, adorned with fake snow and pulsing with electronic music, beckons weary holiday shoppers. But there's no Santa, and no elves; instead, tablets and laptops are the lure of Google's high-tech holiday display.
Google and other leading tech giants — Amazon.com, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft — are opening retail pop-up stores, stores-within-stores, mall kiosks and showrooms to ramp up sales during the crucial holiday shopping season. They even are outfitting tour buses with their latest gadgets.
Inspired and challenged by Apple's successful retail stores, the companies hope to convert tech-skeptical consumers into gadget buyers by letting them swipe, type and tinker with the new technology, experts say.
Not every sale, these companies are learning, can be made online.
“They have to be where the public goes and frequents, and that's the mall,” said David Johnson, chief executive officer of Strategic Vision, a Georgia-based branding firm. “Your tech geeks are going to order online. But before you're going to see mass consumption, people are going to want to touch the products.”
As more big tech companies add consumer gadgets to their product lineup and compete with Apple, which has an ever-growing footprint of flourishing stores, they'll also add more pop-up displays to show off those gadgets, allowing consumers to interact with tech in a personal way, experts say.
“Everyone in retail has looked at Apple in the last few years to try and replicate what they've done,” said Stephen Baker, an analyst with the NPD Group. “If you are dabbling in hardware you have to be in front of the customer.”
Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP added mini-stores inside the Omaha and Des Moines locations of Omaha-based Nebraska Furniture Mart, and had a pop-up store and restaurant in New Zealand for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., has opened the Intel Experience Store in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, showcasing HP detachable laptops that run Intel processors.
EBay, the e-commerce company that started as an auction website, last month put up large touch-screen panels on the walls at Westfield San Francisco Center. Consumers can shop from three interactive glass screens.
HP and SAP, the German software giant, have taken retail displays on the road — HP is running a truckload of gadgets and demos across the country. SAP built a bus to showcase its cloud services, mobile technology and data applications. It has since parked the bus at 61 events, including the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco and a football tailgate party in Detroit.
“It kind of looks like an Apple store,” said Byron Banks, vice president of product marketing at SAP's Palo Alto office. “It has iPads on it. It has touch-screens on it.”
SAP doesn't sell gadgets like Apple, but it does provide the software for more than 250,000 big businesses and agencies, many of which make and sell everyday consumer products such as cosmetics and hardware parts.
“The closer we are to consumers and people on the street, the better able we are to do our job,” Banks said.
Experts say most tech giants won't open full stores like Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple. Retail space is expensive, and unless you have a wide product selection it would be hard to fill. Holiday installations and pop-up stores give companies the flexibility to move around and avoid hiring full-time retail staff.
“No long-term commitments, no long leases,” said Larry Chiagouris, a consumer behavior and marketing expert at Pace University.
But that's not to say throwing up the Google Winter Wonderlab at the Westfield Galleria in Roseville was easy. The Wonderlab workers said the setup took about three days and required extensive sound engineering and installing additional Internet networks to support the games, music and videos that run on the tablets.
The main attraction is the 13½-foot illuminated snow globe structure, where customers, decked out in Google-supplied Santa costumes and holiday props, can make their own slow-motion video set to music. The camera in the snow globe captures a second and a half of film that is slowed down to about 15 seconds, creating a Matrix-like effect, and the video is uploaded to YouTube.
Most customers come for the moviemaking but are asked to stay for a one-on-one demo on Google's second-generation Nexus 7. Computers are set up for shoppers to buy the tablet, as well as a Chromebook laptop or Google's streaming media device, the Chromecast, and have it home-delivered. Still, despite the many sales pitches, Google insists the labs are not stores but “an interactive way to experience all of Google's gadgets.”
“They don't want people to think they're stores because then they just become another retailer,” Johnson said. “Because then they become like Best Buy.”