Retailers test new formats during holidays

Bryan Hunt of Middle River shops at GameStop Kids at White Marsh, which is experimenting with child-focused sales.

At GameStop Kids at White Marsh Mall, shoppers will find plush Mario book bags and Angry Birds hats mixed in with the Lego Star Wars and other kid-friendly video games, a mix meant to attract both serious "gamers" as well as those who've never played but want some gift-giving advice.

That's by design, said executives of the video game chain, which is testing out the new, kid-focused format as a way to appeal to new crowds of shoppers during the busiest time of year.

"Our business grows exponentially during the holiday season," said Bob Puzon, GameStop's executive vice president of merchandising. "We just thought about some of the business and opportunities we could expand upon. There's just an opportunity with a kids' environment. We're trying to take care of the consumers who thought [GameStop] was only for hard-core gamers with more kids' products."

Retailers striving to remain relevant are experimenting with new concepts at malls across the Baltimore region and elsewhere this holiday season. Specialty retailers such as GameStop are opening even more specialized stores, targeting specific segments of shoppers. Online-only sellers are opening brick-and-mortar locations, both temporary and permanent. And big-box retailers such as Best Buy and Toys "R" Us continue to pursue small-footprint formats that can fit in mall or urban settings.

The holidays are prime time for retail testing because more people are shopping and willing to check out new outlets for gift-giving ideas.

Consumers can expect to see more of such trends, said Alden Lury, a retail strategist with Kurt Salmon in New York.

"When looking across all segments, retailers of all types are focused on more closely connecting with their customers, and that has a lot to do with testing new store formats," Lury said.

The goal, he said, is to create "more compelling store experience for the customers."

While the recession has driven some retailers to find ways to reinvent themselves, "a big piece of it is the change in the way customers shop," said Mike Gatti, a senior vice president of the National Retail Federation.

"With mobile devices and more online shopping happening, retailers are looking at how do they utilize their stores the best way they can," Gatti said. "Is my store the right size? And would it do better with smaller stores? … Another piece is how do we differentiate ourselves so that we drive more traffic, bring more value to our customers and give them a better shopping experience."

Companies that sell products mainly online or through other retailers have found that creating a branded, physical presence "is a way of creating a buzz, raising brand awareness, creating a connection with the consumer and giving their consumers and new consumers a chance to try out what they have to offer," Lury said.

That was the idea behind 30 "pop-up" Microsoft stores, including one that opened in October in The Mall in Columbia.

Microsoft had said it wants to give store customers hands-on experience with its products they might not get elsewhere. Kevin Turner, Microsoft's chief operating officer, announced the idea for the pop-ups earlier this year as a way to expand the company's retail presence in new locations and complement Microsoft's nearly two dozen permanent stores, none of which are in Maryland.

In other cases, big-box stores are going small.

Toys "R" Us began opening Toys "R" Us Express stores in malls and other shopping centers during the 2009 holiday season, taking advantage of mall vacancies created when KB Toys went out of business. The Toys "R" Us Express stores grew from 90 in 2009 to 600 in 2010. The company now has three Express stores in Maryland.

Best Buy began testing Best Buy Mobile, a small-store format centered around the idea of enhancing the experience of mobile phone shopping, with nine temporary stores in New York in 2006. The initial mix of stores included five of the small-format stores and four within existing Best Buy stores.

Scott Moore, vice president of marketing for Best Buy's connectivity business group, said the concept grew out of the recognition that "mobile phones are an important and personal part of people's lives, and while everyone has them and loves them, they hate the shopping experience."

At the Best Buy specialty stores, which offer phones from nine carriers plus tablets, e-readers, MP3 players and accessories, consumers can choose from numerous phone makers and plans with the help of store employees who are trained on all the models and plans.

Moore says the strategy is working and the Best Buy Mobile concept is growing fast. The electronics retailer, which is closing some of its larger stores, now operates 404 specialty stores, mostly in malls, including 104 stores that opened this year. And Best Buy, not traditionally known as a mobile phone seller, has increased its market share from 1 percent of the market in 2007 to 7 percent.

Best Buy has turned its attention to mall locations because "we want to be in a shopping area where consumers are living their daily lives, knowing that everyone in America is going to have to upgrade to a new smartphone every two years," Moore said. "We want to provide that service to them, even if they're not a core Best Buy customer."

Barrie Avery, an 18-year-old student at Loch Raven High School, sought advice at Best Buy Mobile for a new smartphone he said he wanted mainly for calling friends and playing games.

Stopping in on a weekday afternoon at the Towson Town Center store, he said he felt more comfortable in a smaller store where "there are more [sales] people to understand what you need."

GameStop is opening 84 temporary GameStop Kids stores this holiday season, including one at White Marsh Mall and another at Marley Station in Glen Burnie. Most of the malls also have permanent GameStop stores.

"This is truly our test environment," Puzon said. "We're looking at sales volume and footsteps every day. We've got options to extend some of the leases. With some, we may extend the leases or stay open as long as we get footsteps in the store."

Customers at White Marsh on a recent Friday morning included parents buying holiday gifts.

"This is pretty cool," said Lisa Calvert of Dundalk about the kid-focused video game store, before buying two Nabi tablet computers for her 3-year-old and her 6-year-old. "The other GameStops seems to be more for older people. This will be their big presents."

Brian Hunt of Middle River had been shopping in the mall a day earlier with his kids, who had spotted merchandise in the brightly colored store. He returned alone the next day to buy "Mario" book bags and action figures for his son.

"It's hard to find Mario stuff," he said. "Most of the game shopping we do is for the kids, and this is kid-friendly."