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The Store of the Future Has Arrived (and No, It's Not Apple)

How brands are digitizing retail

AT&T's Chicago flagship store on the Magnificent Mile Photo: Courtesy of AT&T

Eighty-five-year-old Chicagoan Martin Shafron, a self-described “computer illiterate,” steps into the rotunda-like entrance of AT&T’s flagship store in the city’s high-end retail district known as the Magnificent Mile. Though Shafron doesn’t realize it, he is also smack in the middle of a retail revolution showing off its gadgetry and pageantry from here to Beijing.

As he waits for one of the iPad-wielding sales associates to assist him with his first iPhone, which he’d bought there the day before, Shafron is sprinkled with what AT&T calls “innovation sounds”—perhaps best described as raindrops going pitter-patter on a digital rooftop interspersed with wind chimes producing cyber inharmonic spectra.

The highly stylized space, which opened last fall, looks more like a staid museum lobby than a store, but it’s hardly a bore—there’s plenty of digital eye candy competing for Shafron’s attention as he waits, including an 18-foot video wall equipped with motion-sensory software on which a couple of kids are playing a game.

He, like most who walk through these doors, is seriously wowed by the space, but, he says, “More than anything, I appreciate the hands-on help.”

Call it the Appleization of brick and mortar, where retailers from Michael Kors to Staples to Pep Boys are dazzling consumers with the futuristic in-store shopping experience the House That Jobs Built gave rise to. In fact, a decade ago and just a few blocks from the AT&T flagship, Apple opened its own gleaming, digitized space on the Magnificent Mile—but Apple is no longer the coolest kid on the block. Today, that distinction belongs to AT&T—though there’s plenty of competition from the likes of Nike and Burberry, which have unveiled souped-up stores here in recent months, as well as Apple, which, buzz has it, is prepping its own overhaul.

Employing the latest technology at point of sale is nothing new—for years businesses from car rental companies to Nordstrom department stores have unhooked from the wires. But the trend has gone from merely ringing up sales via mobile devices to a deeply immersive in-store experience—fully digitized but crucially featuring that face-to-face element customers like Shafron demand.

“We want to transform the traditional website experience into the physical experience,” explains Paul Roth, president, retail at AT&T. “It’s all about creating interactions rather than just transactions.”

And interacting they are. The AT&T flagship attracts an estimated 30,000 customers per month, many drawn in by bells and whistles like that giant interactive screen, which lights up the cityscape as it also manages to circumvent a zoning restriction banning exterior signage on the Magnificent Mile. The store has only one traditional retail counter, and the cash registers are tucked away in stylish wood cabinets. Sales associates access the registers not with a key but via biometric fingerprinting software and not while standing behind the tills but, rather, while sitting on a couch face to face with the customer.

The space also features a section devoted to using music apps not only for listening to but also writing tunes. To show how Square, an AT&T partner, can be used by small businesses, there’s a display with real cupcakes and a handmade sign reading “Bake Sale.”

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