Here’s what’s inside Google’s first-ever retail store

After years of flirting with the idea of opening a physical store, Google announced its first-ever permanent retail location last month. Today, June 17, is the official grand opening, and Google celebrated with a blog post detailing what the store is like.

Officially, this is “The Google Store Chelsea,” and it lives in New York City on 15th and 9th, aka the Chelsea Market building, aka the headquarters of Google’s New York City campus. Unlike the stark white Apple Stores that Google is chasing after, the Google Store has a natural look, with warm wood walls and furniture. Whimsical bendy rods shoot out of the floor and decorate the store, looking like a giant version of a bead maze from a pediatrician’s office. The store was designed by Ivy Ross, Google’s VP of hardware design.

What can you buy in a Google Store? It’s essentially an offline version of store.google.com. That means it will sell Pixel phones, earbuds, Pixelbook laptops, Chromecasts, Google TVs, Stadia controllers, and Nest-branded speakers, smart displays, thermostats, smoke detectors, cameras, Wi-Fi routers, and doorbells. Google also notes that it will “have experts on hand to help visitors get the most out of their device, such as troubleshooting an issue, fixing a cracked Pixel screen, or helping with installations.”

“Sandbox” areas for Pixel, Stadia, and Nest will pitch customers on the benefits of each product line. The Pixel area shows off the phone’s camera technology with various lighting effects; the Stadia area is one of the only places the public can actually try the game streaming service; and the Nest section is a big living room full of smart home devices. A “workshop” space will host regular events and lessons. There’s also a rotating exhibit called the “Google Imagination Space,” a “17-foot-tall circular glass structure” that surrounds a visitor with several vertical screens. Right now, it’s pitching Google Translate, and visitors can “experience real-time translation of your speech into 24 languages simultaneously and then learn how this all happens on the back end using several Google technologies.”

A one-off store or the start of a Googley retail empire?

It’s hard to say if this is a one-off vanity store for Google’s NYC HQ or if Google is getting serious about retail. One of the co-authors of the blog post is “Nathan Allen, Head of Store Design & Special Projects,” which is a very interesting title for someone at a company with a single retail store. According to Allen’s LinkedIn, he held the title of “Head of Design for Experiential & Special Projects” until two months ago, but “Head of Store Design” apparently provides enough work to be his full-time job now. The blog post also notes that during the development of the store, Google “built a full-scale mockup of the space at our retail hangar in Mountain View.” Again, having a “retail hangar” to experiment with sounds like part of a process rather than a one-off thing.

Apple has over 500 physical Apple Stores, but the company is also a hardware juggernaut. It’s not clear if Google’s limited and inconsistent hardware selection can support a retail store. Microsoft is in a similar boat as Google, shipping low-volume, aspirational hardware in an ecosystem flooded with compromised partner devices. Microsoft started its retail store idea in 2009 and ended up getting out of the space in 2020.

Regardless of Google’s future retail plans, this Google Store is going to be a special case. Google owns this entire building, so it’s not risking much as a retail venture since the property costs are accruing anyway. Google is turning 5,000 square feet of the ground floor from what could be office space into a public retail store. If the idea works out, maybe the company will build more stores. If not, the store can either stick around as a vanity project or can go back to being office space.

I wonder what happens if you walk into the store and shout, “Hey, Google.”

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