SHANGHAI -- The common perception is that urban shoppers prefer to make their big-ticket electronics purchases online, but in China, brick-and-mortar stores are still drawing in customers who want to see, touch and test their next appliance.
This is what I found conducting interviews with citizens in Tianjin, Hangzhou, Wuhan and Chengdu at the request of a Japanese consumer electronics company. A related finding was the growing appeal of "experience stores" run by individual brands, with several of the people I interviewed saying they preferred these over mass retailers.
Leading brands like Apple and Sony have their own standalone stores across China, but it was still surprising to find that brand-specific shops are so popular among Chinese consumers.
Retailers seem to be catching on to this trend, and more stores are beginning to use the word "experience" rather than "sales" to describe their operations. Domestic companies such as smartphone makers Xiaomi and Huawei Technologies and conditioner manufacturer Gree Electric Appliances, and foreign players like Samsung Electronics of South Korea and Panasonic of Japan are transforming their existing sales shops into experience stores.
At first glance, an experience store belonging to ASUSTek Computer, a Taiwanese electronics company, looks much like any other sales outlet, though the word "experience" on the front signboard does provide a more inviting feel. Once inside, the staff seem more interested in explaining the various features of a smartphone or how a zoom lens works than in making a sale.
Explaining the difference between this and a regular store, a staff member said that the primary aim here is to introduce the merits of the brand and its products to customers in person. "We hope the hands-on experience gives people a better understanding and appreciation of our products," he said. The staff are not given sales quotas to meet, he added.
A sign placed near the check-out area touted the benefits of an experience store over an online one. A product bought on the internet could prove to be a counterfeit or used, and after-sales service is not always available, the sign explained. An experience store directly operated by a brand, on the other hand, can readily respond to a request for repair or other customer needs. The advertisement summed up the differences succinctly: When shopping online, you must buy a device before experiencing it. At an experience store, you can experience a product before buying it.
In the China's consumer electronics market, the battle between online shops and physical stores has reached a new stage. Will "experience" tip the balance in favor of brick-and-mortar businesses?
Kosuke Okame is a Shanghai-based business and market research consultant.