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Global technology powerhouses Samsung and Microsoft made a series of announcements at the start of August suggesting they are strengthening ties.
The aim, according to the official parlance, is to create “seamless productivity experiences across devices, applications and services”. And it starts with exclusive Microsoft integrations in the new Galaxy Note10, which the companies say will allow users to work fluidly between a smartphone and a PC.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella even appeared onstage at Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10 launch on 7 August to underline that point – with the two companies keen to provide the relevant services and platforms for businesses and consumers alike in the 5G era.
Coincidentally, Samsung and Microsoft both opened central London spaces within three weeks of each other in July. The sites – in Kings Cross’s Coal Drops Yard and Oxford Street respectively – have some common features, but are ultimately very different.
Whereas Microsoft’s 21,932 sq ft store, which spans three floors in the heart of London’s busiest retail hub, was unveiled alongside footballers, celebrities and other razzle-dazzle on 11 July, Samsung KX’s 20,000 sq ft site opened on 31 July in “soft launch” mode.
Both spaces are examples of new-style shopping experiences that do not actually involve many direct shopping opportunities. They are destinations where visitors can play with, test and learn about products and new technology.
It’s a brand engagement method many traditional retailers say they are aiming to recreate in their own flagships, as a larger share of sales continue to come from ecommerce and shopping habits evolve. The format is adopted by many retailers in Coal Drops Yard – London’s most recently opened large retail and hospitality development.
Old, new and future
One week after Samsung KX opened its doors for the first time, Computer Weekly received a private tour of the site, and the place certainly stands out not just for its lack of direct retail offering but also for its unique juxtaposition of old, new and future.
The building itself was part of a collection of structures once used to transfer coal arriving by rail from the north of England to road networks in the south.
But while the design and location represent history, some of the items showcased are what Samsung sees as the future. The entrance wing of Samsung KX is a lifestyle setting, showcasing readily available items for connected kitchens and living rooms, but there are also internet of things-style products on show that are still in beta mode.
“We talk about connected living but that’s a minority of people, so we’re bringing the subject to life to let them know what that will look like,” says Tanya Weller, director of Samsung KX.
“We’re actually being brave enough to bring prototypes into an experience like this so we can show we’re at the forefront of innovation.”
Although some smart home items on show are already on the market, there is a connected car concept in the space, displaying as-yet unlaunched features which will enable people to link mobile devices and smart home products to their car dashboard.
“It’s giving them a glimpse of the future,” says Weller. “These are things that are not yet out there but are coming.”
During the tour, our guide reiterated time and again that Samsung KX “is not a store”. If visitors want to make a purchase, they can ask a member of staff to order it online, but they cannot walk out with items or collect online orders there – in fact, there is an apparent aversion to on-site transactions.
At the front of the new space is a service area where Samsung users can receive product advice or repairs, but as visitors move through the space they enter a wing featuring virtual reality installations, phone case customisation stations, and a theatre-like area with a big screen, where a programme of community events will run every week.
There’s also an opportunity for visitors to try their hand at becoming DJs, with staff on hand to talk people through the musical capabilities held in Galaxy phones. There’s the obligatory café, too, something many new retail spaces offer their customers.
“It’s really an event venue that will evolve and change depending on what our audience are interested in and what our community needs – it’s very different to what’s currently out there in terms of retail experience,” says Weller.
She adds that Samsung’s head office staff are already using the space as a place to meet channel partners and business-to-business customers, but the adaptable event area – currently used by 27 partners including yoga teachers and local universities – is viewed as the unique selling point.
“Being an open source platform is part of our mantra and we’re open to working with community partners and passion partnerships.”
Such positioning has required staff to be trained more deeply in customer service and Samsung culture, as opposed to the overt sales tactics required for traditional shops.
A dedicated pop-up training facility kitted out as a mini version of Samsung KX was created by the company in association with Mash Staffing, and employees spent four weeks there learning the relevant skills and getting to know each other pre-opening.
Weller says training retail staff at other brands can feel “quite functional” and formulaic, but for the 88 Samsung KX staff – who were selected from 14,500 applications – they are encouraged to offer up ideas, and help develop the events programme.
“It’s about making sure they are inspired by the vision of what we’re trying to achieve,” she says. Mash developed a mobile app that staff use to communicate and provide feedback to senior management.
Martin Schofield, former retail systems manager at Burberry and ex-IT and logistics director at Harvey Nichols, and now CEO of Retail247 Consulting, describes Samsung KX as a “beautiful space” and worthy of a visit for those looking for technology inspiration.
“It’s an out-and-out brand showcase, positioning Samsung as a purveyor of luxury and innovation rather than utility and necessity,” he says.
“It is an exercise to differentiate, and to capture the aspirational margin that Apple has so successfully engineered.”
Although Samsung seems to be working evermore closely with Microsoft, the design, feel and atmosphere of their respective new London hubs differ considerably. And there appears little appetite from the Korean company to replicate the much heralded “Apple store experience”, too.
“What makes us different is the role of the space – it’s really focused on the experience,” explains Weller.
“You won’t see rows and rows of tables with heaps of point of sale – it’s in a lifestyle setting so we’re showcasing it in a different environment. It’s paving the way for new retail, and we’ve got some grand ambitions for it.”