Whitehall, Pa.-Along a bustling retail corridor within this semirural suburb of Allentown, Pa., sits a store that is truly unique in all of retail.
Although the sign outside identifies the big box as a Best Buy, it doesn't quite look the part. Missing is the ubiquitous blue wedge that adorns the facade of the chain's other 350-plus stores, while the differences within are even more discernable, from the massive multi-screen video displays and extra-wide power aisles to the new gray-and-yellow color scheme.
Welcome to an SOP2, or Standard Operating Procedure 2, Best Buy lingo for four new prototype stores that popped up around the country this summer. Rather than represent the next wave of store design-although they ultimately may-the test units were conceived as a retail laboratory where new concepts in merchandising, product adjacencies, traffic flow, store operations and employee management can be tried in the field.
As Mike Linton, Best Buy's senior VP/strategic marketing, explained, "We continue to test better ways of doing things. The format is totally new and different. It's more balanced in flow, more interactive, and tests different adjacencies and presentations."
Added a company spokeswoman, "SOP2 is a Best Buy initiative that crosses over into many areas of the company. It addresses how we use space, what products we sell and how we sell them, and how we train our employees to offer customers what they need."
According to Whitehall general manager Mike Rolston, the prototypes are staging "hundreds of tests" in the areas of space allocation, sales training and customer interaction to determine whether "our people have the correct tools and analysis skills to upgrade the customer, and if the customer is using the interactive displays."
The three-year-old, 45,000-square-foot Whitehall site, nestled in Pennsylvania's college-rich Lehigh Valley, is one of three existing stores that underwent the three-month-long, million-dollar remodeling. (The other two are located in the Detroit suburb of Novi, Mich., and the Dallas-Fort Worth satellite burg of Arlington, Texas.) A fourth unit was built from the ground up in Ocoee, Fla., near Orlando.
Each location is representative of a different general market classification, and each of the three existing units was selected for its smooth operation and solid if not stellar sales performance in order to leave room for testable improvement.
With the exception of Whitehall's wedge-less facade, each of the four stores are "very similar," noted Rolston. The most striking difference from the latest-generation Concept 4.5 stores is the sense of spaciousness. "The main feature is its airiness," Rolston acknowledged. "Customers think it was expanded because it looks a lot more open. I enjoy watching people when they walk in the door and say 'Whoa!' Some even bring their friends back and give them tours."
Contributing to the "whoa" effect are the superwide aisles, which branch out dramatically from the entranceway in three directions to form a double racetrack configuration.
Also eye-catching is the trio of wall-mounted video displays that anchor the home theater, computer and music departments. The displays serve as focal points, which together with the power aisles are designed to enhance traffic flow-through, Rolston said.
While the SOP2s boast the same departments found in Best Buy's Concept 4.5 stores, the adjacencies are jarringly different. Upon entering, visitors are met by a massive movie section that's comprised largely of DVDs. ("They're a growing opportunity," Rolston said.")
Moving counterclockwise, shoppers next pass a "wireless and satellite systems" section, while a combined audio and video department labeled "home theater" fills most of the right side of the store. The major appliance area, among the first in the chain to feature the high-end KitchenAid and Jenn-Air brands, fills the right-rear corner-180 degrees from its usual haunt in yet another effort to "even out the traffic flow," Rolston noted.
Computer hardware and peripherals take up the center of the rear wall, flanked by office furniture, Internet-access services and software on the right, and mobile audio on the left. Music, which typically fills the center of the selling floor, was moved to the left wall, and digital cameras and camcorders are nestled behind movies, along the central power aisle.
Besides the new adjacencies, elements unique to the SOP2s include the color scheme, whose gray-and-yellow (vs. blue-and-yellow) hues lend "a more futuristic, high-tech feel" to the store, Rolston said.
Another innovation is a transaction center, located toward the rear by the home office section, that handles credit applications, complex custom sales, white-goods deliveries or MSN sign-ups. The center frees up checkout personnel to focus on purchases, which are processed from 12 registers clustered by the front left wall.
In another SOP2 twist, snaking queuing lines were created to speed the checkout process while wending shoppers through a self-described "C-store" stocked with quick-turn impulse items.
Rolston said it's still too early to gauge the results of Best Buy's grand experiment, although his Whitehall unit is receiving a "very favorable response" following its grand re-opening event, despite the close proximity of Circuit City and Sears stores.
Besides, he reminded, Whitehall and its sister SOP2 stores are works in progress. "It's not just one test happening. We could take parts of what we do here and roll it out to the rest of the company."
"We essentially have four laboratories," Rolston continued, "and we want to see how the customer perceives and enjoys them. We're also looking at how we're going to maintain our dominance five years from now amid changing technology and shortened product cycles. That what this test is all about."