Currys PC World and Google have teamed up, using a London store as a template to create an engaging retail experience for customers.

Dixons Carphone boss Sebastian James is a man who walks the talk. At last week’s Retail Week Live conference he informed the audience that retailers who did not prepare for the advent of the “connected consumer” would be hit by an “asteroid”, which might prove a terminal event for those concerned.

As if to ram the point home, his speech came just after the opening of the first ‘Google shop’ in the retailer’s Currys PC World store on Tottenham Court Road. This was claimed to be a first for Google, although it installed a ‘Chrome Zone’ shop-in-shop in the same store in 2011.

That consisted of a few brightly coloured mid-shop units with a high-gloss white backdrop – impressive when set against the rest of the store.

Currys PC World & Google, Tottenham Court Road

Opened: March 5, 2015

Size: 915 sq ft

Design: Google in-house team

Ambience: Smartphone screen writ large

Highlight: The Heath Robinson-style window

Future: Two further shops are to open in Thurrock and Fulham

Pedal power

In 2015, however, things have moved on and, rather than a glorified display module for an offshoot of a global online player, the first true Google shop is aimed at the connected consumer and is an instance of the increasing tendency of internet brands to head for the high street.

The shape this takes varies from brand to brand and location to location. In the case of Google on Tottenham Court Road, what is on view is an 85 sq m space that qualifies as an ‘experience’.

The word experience is much overused by tech retailers; like ‘interactivity’, it has been abused to the point where it has begun to lose meaning. The Google shop-in-shop, however, does go a considerable way towards rehabilitating experience as something that may have value for the shopper and which is worth a visit in its own right.

From the store’s right-hand window, the view in is Heath Robinson-esque: a white bike with blue rear mud guard  stands on its front wheel beside a series of white cogs, some of which are rotating, with a yellow turning wheel and green crank arm; in the middle of it all sits a red-and-blue London Underground sign for Warren Street – a nod to the station just across the road – and the colours combine to evoke Google’s well-known scheme.

It is not the sort of thing people might expect to find in the window of a store that specialises in tech equipment for the savvy urban dweller. But what is on show is a piece of art, inspired by  the work of the late American artist Rube Goldberg, that hints at what lies within. Google has a massive and brightly coloured office close to the other end of Tottenham Court Road and will be keen to show that, while it may be at the cutting edge of all things whizzy and tech-related, it has not lost touch with its sense of fun.

Walk through the door and Google dominates the view. This is a medium-sized Currys PC World and, given the in-store Google Chrome antecedent, it is not a stranger to playing second fiddle to the tech giant with all its bells and whistles.

The shop-in-shop’s colour scheme, and the consequent impact on shoppers, have altered almost completely since Chrome Zone in 2011. The design has been undertaken in-house by Google, according to Ainsley Sykes, senior project manager at Dixons Carphone. “The aim is to link with the Google Chrome browser,” he explains.

The shop-in-shop project has been a long-running one that spent about 16 months in gestation.

Tech galore

The vast array of technology that has been packed into the space certainly speaks of careful planning and meticulous design. At the front of the department is a curved display table that has a variety of tablets, wearable tech and Android devices – all Google Chrome-related. The unit has a plain American hickory wood top and is reminiscent of the sort of thing that will be familiar to devotees of Apple stores.

There the similarity ends. Look beyond this initial unit and the screens are the thing.

They are high-resolution and occupy a space that is almost floor-to-ceiling on two sides of the shop-in-shop. The screen on the left allows visitors to doodle with the Google name, thanks to an electronic spray can.

On the morning of visiting, there was fairly stiff competition to have a go at this feature, and shoppers were busy taking photos of their creative output. Google Hangouts conversations can also be realised via this screen, although that seems unlikely given the public nature of the space.

World view

The screen at the rear is first and foremost a high-resolution version of the Google Earth tool that many will be familiar with.

Shoppers can control their view via a mid-shop console and this is, in effect, almost identical to what can be done on a handset, albeit on a larger scale. The screen is also used to play an outsized version of the early ’80s arcade game Pac-Man.

In the mid-shop there is also seating that Sykes says is modular and which can be organised theatre-style so that tutorials can be given using the screen. 

Getting physical

There can be little doubt that what is on offer is an experience when compared with the normal environment of a technology shop. The question, though, is whether this is indeed a shop or actually an upscale version a trade show stand. Both Sykes, and the four Google members of staff who are on-hand during opening hours, are insistent that the space is about providing an experience that will lead to incremental sales, and that what is on view is not some kind of techie show-pony.

Maybe so and with two, bigger, Google shops set to open in the Currys PC World stores in Thurrock and Fulham, this looks like a trial into which a fair amount of money is being poured. It is a moot point whether Google might have had the same success by opening a standalone store in the area instead of benefitting from the halo effect of a very busy city-centre technology outlet. But it is easy to see that any benefit audit would offer multiple reasons for Google and Dixons to have followed the path they have.

For the moment, this remains a first for Google and will certainly attract the curious over the next few weeks. Beyond that, it will be interesting to see whether the thrill of Google as a physical entity can match its online appeal.