War used to be simple. All you needed was the biggest bomb, and everyone else kept their mouths shut. Then more people figured out how to make that bomb. And then all sorts of other threats—biological agents, computer viruses, and UAVs—complicated the landscape.
Consider this in the context of AT&T.
There was a time when AT&T controlled the world—or at least iPhones. Before too long, however, AT&T had lost its exclusive on Apple's category-crushing product, and a loosely organized association of Android phones clouded consumer preference again.
So what does AT&T do now? They’re no longer the only carrier with the most coveted phone. Their net income is up and customer churn has been low, but its biggest tactical advantage has been squandered. Now it’s time to take this battle to the street.
Specifically, Chicago's busy Michigan Avenue. That's where, this weekend, following a few years of planning, AT&T is opening its first ever flagship store. There, as 60,000 people per day pass by Cartier, Louis Vuitton, and Coach, they’ll see AT&T’s new 10,000-square-foot retail mecca, a store that AT&T hopes to "bring life to the brand," according to store manager Christina Cheng.
Upon entering the store, you’ll first see an atrium ringed with LEDs. Employees will be on hand to greet all the customers, I’m told, because AT&T’s focus groups have discovered that it’s personal greetings that make customers feel welcome—not architectural bells and whistles.
Even customers carrying phones from Verizon and T-Mobile can play with a nearby touchscreen table loaded with AT&T’s favorite apps. Just click a category, preview the page, and then download it on your smartphone through Bluetooth, QR code, or a simple URL.
Tucked in a corner nearby, a stage backed by a small tower of LCDs allows customers to play head-to-head, Kinect-style motion games. Does this have much of anything to do with AT&T itself? Not really, but it supports "a vibe of exploration" Cheng tells me. This stage will double as a place for both product announcements and presentations from local app developers. That area is just an iPhone’s throw from a (shorter) electronics table featuring apps and gadgets for kids.
The App Bar is in the same vicinity, staffed by App Tenders. Unlike Apple’s Genius Bar—the clear line of inspiration here—these staffers don’t handle any serious problems. Rather, they suggest apps based on your tastes, "like your local barista would recommend something for you," Cheng says. Again, it reinforces the casualness of the store—it's so casual, in fact, that it doesn’t even have a checkout counter. Employees ring up customers at mobile terminals.
The deeper diagnostic work is tucked in the back, a series of cozy tables for one-on-one conversations, all wrapped in a studio space filled with large splash walls of Chicago designers who’ve designed limited edition, custom cases only available at AT&T’s flagship.
It’d be easy to simply label the whole experience an Apple Store
clone. And indeed, you do feel Cupertino’s influences, from the App Bar to the expansive open tables full of electronics. But if the Apple Store feels like a modern museum that you’re free to touch, AT&T’s flagship feels more like a rich person’s basement loaded with toys. The store is one wood-burning oven away from doubling as a high-end pizza and wine bar.
I’m also reminded a bit of REI as I walk past the Lifestyle Boutiques—tables dedicated to particular interests, like health and fitness, productivity, and photography/sharing. Cheng tells me that she’s staffing these tables with knowledgeable experts (much like the staff at REI always seems to be scraping the mud off their boots before walking into work). A former photojournalist will introduce shoppers to their photography peripherals. A certified personal trainer will be discussing Fitbits and tablet connectivity.
Across the store, AT&T has set up its Experience Platform, which is pretty much a big budget CES booth come to life. Each space represents part of a consumer’s life, from a Nissan Leaf parked in the corner, which shoppers can enter and play with in-car phone connectivity, to a model kitchen outfitted with AT&T’s beta home automation software, to a four-couched living room set up, filled with Xbox 360s and AT&T U-verse.
"If you don’t have this area, [our services are] just a list," Cheng explains. "For this much a month you can do this, or for this much a month you can do that.’" Instead, shoppers can actually sit on a couch, try out fiber-optic cable and beam content to sample phones and tablets that they’re simply handed, completely untethered, to test out and try new techniques.
To the skeptic, it’s a lot of empty demo space in a premium retail strip that rents for $450 a square foot. "Our main focus is not sales," Cheng explains. "Our traditional metrics may not work for here, but we’ll be successful in other ways."
She may be right. It’s in the Experience Platform—this floor space-swallowing digital mise en scene—that you really see AT&T’s plan with its flagship, to sell their current and future services, not as a promise of another new iPhone and faster data, but as platform-agnostic interconnectivity. It’s driving to work. It’s making dinner. It’s digital idealism free from the bounds of any phone, but very closely tied to AT&T itself.
So imagine my surprise when I’ve circled the mega boutique store and notice, for the first time, all of AT&T’s actual phones are on display. They’re sitting on a series of tables, splitting the grand room right down the middle—positioned in an obvious yet surely overlooked spot, the physical and metaphorical backbone of the store.