Does Google Need Physical Stores To Sell The Pixel?

Can Google race with Apple for smartphone dominance? Some expert watchers are having doubts — but not because of the phone hardware. Instead, the concern is that Google lacks Apple’s secret weapon — a network of retail stores to sell and support its product.

According to Macworld reports, however “promising” Google’s new offering looks, its rollout is without the support of stores, which offer a critical customer service component, especially with the affluent and high-end client base that Google is targeting with the $620–$860 phone.

Google is attacking customer support in a more virtualized way. Owners of the Pixel phone will be able to tap a support tab and get access to 24-hour chat and call service. They will also be able to share their Pixel screen with the customer rep.

If the phone turns on, of course; if it doesn’t, then that virtual access is going to be hard to well … access. For hands-on help, Google will be relying on Verizon and Best Buy-type locations. Will Google give those workers special training for fixing its phones? Unclear, but most experts are leaning toward no. This means the best “help” customers can get will be in ordering a new phone. Moreover, much of Apple’s miraculous turnaround story over nearly the last two decades has been tied to its big step into a specialized retail store that focuses exclusively on Apple products and serving the needs of Apple customers.

“Consumer electronics retail is broken: Selling products at traditional venues, like Best Buy, leads to undifferentiated displays, sales associates with limited product knowledge and a poor overall buying experience,” Forrester Analyst J.P. Gownder noted in a recent interview.

And it is an idea that others — notably Microsoft — have copied. In fact, Google, as recently as 2015, looked like it was going in a similar direction until it abruptly pulled the plug on its physical retail ambitions in 2015.

But that was a year ago and before Google was playing for keeps in hardware and offering a $600+ phone as its flagship product.

It might be time to rethink that physical retail strategy.