AT&T, Verizon Following Apple Retail Model: Visit, Play, Spend, Stay

AT&T's newest Manhattan store encourages shoppers to touch, try, listen, relax, buy—and stick around after two years are up.

NEW YORK--AT&T has opened a new retail store here, offering shoppers, just in time for the holidays, a retail experience that it says better reflects "how customers want to shop for technology."

The store is the 13th of its kind (Las Vegas; Orlando, Fla.; and Wilmington, Del., are among the cities to have already received them), and AT&T plans to gradually update each its retail locations across the country.

That AT&T, like its rivals, isn't just selling phones but "technology" is a key piece of its evolving business model, and one it made most clear in mid-2012, when it made the switch from tying contracts to single phones to instead allotments of data.

Taking cues from the AT&T flagship store that opened on Chicago's Michigan Avenue last year, the store on W. 57th Street—a block from Central Park—features various zones: a Connected Experience Zone, a Community Zone and an Explore Zone. In each, customers can have hands-on time with tablets, smartphones, smartwatches, mobile speakers and other devices, getting a feel for each or seeing how they pair up.

Present is everything from AT&T's Digital Life home security solution—there's a lamp, a computer, door locks and more that shoppers can lock or program from a tablet, getting a feel for how the solution would work from hundreds of miles away.

At a nearby round table, a circle of speakers from Beats Audio is presented beside live smartphones, so customers can experience how the phones control the speakers or compare the audio experiences, switching the playback from one speaker to another. At another station nearby are headphones that users can try on, plugging them into their own phones or those provided.

There's a table of iPads, another of iPhones, another of smartwatches and still another of less expected devices, like the Miroir Pico Pocket Projector, smaller than a grilled cheese, which can connect to an Android smartphone via an HDMI cord and project images or video onto a wall at a size of up to 60 inches. While the Miroir Pico Pocket Projector will pair with your phone's speaker, AT&T is quick to show how pairing it with a mobile speaker, about the size of a sunglass case, can create a "home theater–like experience."

Color-coding on placards also makes for easy shopping—green for Android, black for BlackBerry, blue for Windows Phone, etc.

"It's sure going to help them sell accessories," Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart, said of the store, acknowledging that they're attractively designed.

The AT&T aesthetic is more modern hotel lobby—warm wood table legs, sleek white tabletops, modern lighting and the occasional funky accessory—than the stark-and-modern design of Apple stores, but Apple is certainly the inspiration for providing highly designed spaces in which customers can look, touch, relax and seek one-on-one attention from an educated staff.

"It's all walking, it's all about the experience," said AT&T Retail Sales Manager Haris Jamal, pointing out that there are no off-limits areas. Once employee-only areas like counters for payment have been replaced with tablets that sales associates can use to look up information or accept payment on the spot.

Also gone, or very nearly so, is the word "AT&T," with the carrier instead leaning heavily on its signature shade of orange and its globe icon for branding.

But again like Apple stores, the new AT&T stores offer consumers something solid and specific and attractive to attach the brand name to.

"AT&T wants to be more than just the wireless pipe that gives you voice and data; they want a deeper relationship," Greengart told eWEEK. "They are hoping that by reorienting their stores around different activities, they will get customers to stay with AT&T longer and spend more money with them. It remains to be seen if AT&T can execute on this idea, given the difficulties of retail staffing, but the strategy is sound."

Verizon, which like AT&T now attaches its contracts to data and has a strong interest in increasing the number of devices tapping into that data, opened its first Destination Store, at the Mall of America in Minnesota, Nov. 20. The 10,000-square-foot space, like the new AT&T stores, features zones, called things like Get Fit, Amplify It and Anywhere Business.

"Verizon Wireless is transforming the way we engage with customers by helping them discover all the ways that wireless technology can enable their mobile lifestyles," Seamus Hyland, president of Verizon Wireless Great Plains Region, said in a statement.

If AT&T put out a statement about its Manhattan store Nov. 25, someone likely said the exact same thing.