Sony’s Latest Retail Strategy: Follow Apple’s Lead

Sony is making a big push in retail, as COO Phil Molyneux outlined this morning at a press conference in New York City. As he explained Sony’s retail plans, in that lovely British accent, one thing kept popping up in my mind: Apple.

Sony’s retail strategy, in many ways, seems to be taking cues from Apple’s in-store success over the past few years. That’s not to say that Sony is straight-up copying Apple by any means. Even from a business perspective, Sony’s focus is shifting toward products that support its media platforms, which is just what Apple does. Still, Sony seems to be following Apple’s example (whether in business or retail) in its own individual way.

In April, Sony opened the doors to its first official “Sony Store” (as opposed to the Sony Style stores, which are being replaced by, well, Sony Stores) in Century City in Los Angeles. To put it succinctly, it’s pretty damn beautiful. It’s also strikingly similar to the approach Apple took in its retail stores. Products are displayed on a relatively open floor, interrupted only by plain white tables and a row of massive floor-to-ceiling displays. From the outside, you can see just about every corner and crevice through an entirely glass store-front, and in the back you’ll find a dedicated little module in which you can get the full Sony Home Entertainment experience.

In many ways, this follows Apple’s strategy in-store. Most poignantly, Apple uses a huge amount of glass for every store it builds, whether its in the store-front or the staircases. In fact, I spoke with the architect behind Apple’s retail stores, Peter Bohlin, who said that Apple brought in highly specialized engineers to make the glass used in stores as minimalistic and seamless as possible. Obviously, many store-fronts feature glass-paneled displays, but to go big on the glass front is classic Apple.

Then, of course, there’s Sony’s open air layout. Apple can’t necessarily take credit for this floor plan, so I wouldn’t say that Sony is imitating that style directly. But if you really think about it, there are very few electronics makers that have a strong self-branded retail presence (other than Apple and now Sony, of course). That said, there are really only two models to choose from: the Best Buy style layout (where products are cluttered together in a row on a shelf) or Apple’s layout (which is a thing of beauty). As we all do when we’re trying to create something new and original, Sony likely took from what it already knew in the design process, and Apple’s retail strategy clearly had an impact, whether it was a conscious one or not.

But a store is more than glass store-fronts and giant rooms filled with gadgetry. A successful retail store has unbeatable customer service — again, an area where Apple thrives. Sony’s plan is to offer premium services to customers, what Molyneux calls the “walk out working” concept. This includes setup and education for customers who’ve purchased new Sony gear before they ever leave the store, device personalization, activation of any wireless service, technical PC and IT support, along with in-home consultation, delivery and installation. Sound like anything familiar? Like, oh I don’t know, Apple’s Genius Bar?

When I first converted over to Apple a few years ago and got myself a MacBook Pro, a so-called “genius” started asking me a few unexpected questions. The first was: “would you like me to set this up with your username and password?” The second question was: “I see that you’ve purchased Pages, Keynote, and Numbers. Would you like me to install those for you real quick?” He went on to give me a quick tutorial about personalization, how to care for my new gem, and the best ways to be efficient in OS X.

Again, I’m not saying that Apple invented good customer service in the electronics industry, but before I got my MBP I didn’t even know what to do when my PC freaked out. Do I just call some random computer whiz in the yellow pages? I could send it back in to the manufacturer for a check, but how long will that take? After the conversion to Apple and its genius bar, things like this were no longer a problem. Future Sony consumers will feel the same way.

But Sony has a few unique tricks up its sleeve, too, including something called a “Golden Store.” Now the term Golden Store isn’t going to be something you’ll see in a banner across a storefront, but rather an internal term used at Sony that designates which stores have special sales executions. For example, certain big box retailers that carry Sony products will now have dedicated Sony sales reps wandering about to help customers, and train the retailer’s staff on the best way to educate consumers about Sony. Another example of a golden store would be one with one of those dedicated home entertainment modules.

In short, Sony seems to be learning from Apple’s success and building off of it in a way slightly Sony. This is pretty good news for Sony because, according to Bohlin, Apple really can’t be topped in terms of architectural design. “I see [Apple’s design] as an attitude and belief. People can mimic it, but I doubt they’ll drive it to that level of perfection. That perfection is not easy to achieve. You should do it so brilliantly that it seems easy.”

Sony currently has 46 retails stores open, both Sony Stores and outlets. You can check out the full list of locations here.