The igloo-like snow globe in the middle of the Annapolis mall caught the eye of James Soni.
The three-year-old darted inside, pulling his mother and father along.
The family, told they could dress up and appear in a short, slow-motion video, was filmed in two takes tossing snowballs in the air, to the delight of their son. The gigantic globe, which doubles as a mini production studio, is clearly the centerpiece of Google's new retail venture: Temporary shops set up in six locations nationwide, including Westfield Annapolis mall.
But it was the sleek displays outside the "Winter Wonderlab" that attracted Sean Soni, the boy's father. Soni tested out a Google Nexus 7 tablet, then announced to his wife, Catherine, that what he really wanted for Christmas was a Chromecast, Google's plug-in device that allows users to play online video and music or browse the web on a high-definition television.
"I appreciate how Google is trying to impart itself into every facet of social networking," said Sean Soni, a Pentagon contractor. "I like the interconnectivity."
Google declined to comment on the pop-up stores, which opened the pop-up stores for the holiday season through Dec. 24, or to allow any of its employees to discuss it.
And the venture might be more a marketing tool than a retail channel. In the Annapolis location, Chromebook laptops and Nexus 7 tablets are set up at stations where shoppers can watch videos, play games, listen to music or go online. None of the products are stocked at the Wonderlab, but consumers can order them and have them shipped.
The Google shops are part of a trend among tech companies, said Tom Forte, an Internet analyst who follows the web giant for Telsey Advisory Group. He cites Apple's retail stores, and pop-up shops by Microsoft and Samsung.
"You have these big tech companies that are increasingly selling their own hardware, and, surprise, surprise, they're finding out it's worthwhile if you have a storefront, especially during the holidays, to showcase their merchandise," Forte said. "They are leveraging the extra space in the mall to give consumers an opportunity to experience their products first-hand and sometimes purchase the products."
Forte believes that the concept is more about marketing than sales for Google, which has sold consumer devices for several years.
"It's really an opportunity for a consumer to touch and feel the product, and oftentimes buy the product at different locations," he said. "But it doesn't mean that in the future, Google couldn't have its own physical stores showcasing their products." he said.
In the short term, Google might be able to use mall locations to pull sales from other retailers, especially when a competitor doesn't have what a consumer wants, said Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak, which analyzes consumer traffic and habits.
But "I don't think they will steal a lot of sales away from retailers performing at a high level," Martin said.
Google has set up similar testing stations in airports.
For the "Wonderlab," Google formed a partnership with mall owner Westfield, the owners of the Annapolis center. The stores opened in mid-November, with a flagship in New York City and locations in malls in Los Angeles, Chicago, Sacramento and Paramus, N.J.
Corrine Barchanowicz, district marketing director of Westfield Annapolis, said she believed Google chose the Annapolis mall for its market was selected in part because of the mall's family atmosphere.
"Something like the Google experience is new, and it's exciting," Barchanowicz said. "It gives customers something they haven't done before, and we're always looking for opportunities like that.
"It's what shopping has become," she said. "There is an entertainment piece to that equation."
Many shoppers who stopped by Google at the mall on a recent weekday were drawn by the entertainment. Several at a time crowded into the snow globe for 23 seconds of fame in a slow motion video that was then "cast" onto an HDTV in the display area and could be posted on YouTube. Some went all out, dressing up in a red Santa suit or scarves, hats and sparkly sunglasses that were provided, then dancing, twirling or throwing snowballs as bits of the "snow" swirled around them.
But for Dennis Cooper, a real estate agent from Bowie, it was all business. Cooper, who has been planning to buy a tablet, was shopping for Christmas when he saw the display. He decided to test out the Nexus 7, which he hadn't seen before.
"That's a nice tablet," Cooper said. "It's very light."
But he wasn't quite ready to make a purchase. He planned to go back home and do some more research -- online.