Credit: Christopher Null
The connected home isn't just a dream for consumers, it's also a bonanza for retailers who stand to cash in big on shoppers looking to upgrade their home life with a few well-chosen gadgets. But connected-home devices are quite a new and emerging market, and confusion is rampant when it comes to products such as smart light bulbs and cloud-connected thermostats.
To help shoppers figure it all out, a couple of progressive retailers are carving out "connected showrooms" in their stores. The big idea: People might actually buy this stuff if they get a chance to play with it firsthand, rather than simply looking at pictures of it online.
I visited two of these showrooms, both Sears and Target stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, to see what retailers are doing to help the masses understand this market--and whether you should venture out into this brave new world for yourself to get some hands-on time with connected gear.
Sears Connected Showroom
You don't need to put on your Sunday best to visit Sears any more, but you'll want to bring your walking shoes and thinking cap to this store-within-a-store inside the Sears location anchoring the nondescript Tanforan shopping mall in San Bruno, Calif. It's easily worth a visit if you find yourself overwhelmed by the growing number of connected-home options on the market.
The store, which opened in June, covers a spacious 4000 square feet, and is designed to feel as though you're walking through an actual smart home. A gabled doorway leads you into the "living room," where a variety of Philips Hue lights and a smart TV anchor a small room filled with contemporary furniture. Behind the living room, there's the "kitchen," complete with smart crock pot and smart coffee maker. You can stroll from there to a nursery room, a couple of workout-centric areas, an outdoor patio, and even a garage. Every room is loaded with gizmos talking to one another, right down to the string of light bulbs zigzagging overhead on the faux deck.
Kudos to Sears for pulling out all the stops on these rooms. Nothing is faked in the store, and many of the devices can be operated (in limited fashion, at least) through a tablet that's anchored next to each station. Even the garage door--a smart unit that you can open and close remotely--is up and running.
The "room" mentality doesn't work for everything, and sure enough there is plenty of gear in the showroom that doesn't quite have a home. A massive selection of routers is wedged into cubicle-like setup where the unsexy stuff--ugly, but necessary--gets shunted. Similarly, items like hubs and smart wall switches are stuffed under display tables in what I suppose could be described as the "utility closet" of the virtual smart home. Other items, like a smart irrigation system, just seemed as though they were shelved somewhere at random.
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