The Digital Skeptic: Bricks and Mortar No Easy Answer for Web Retailers

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Gary Allen likes to know the story behind stuff -- like how tech giants plan on copying Apple's ( AAPL) retail store success.

"It's definitely gotta be a touch-it kind of product for a store to matter," Allen explained to me on the phone. "If it's just another screen or phone, no matter what the store is, who is going to care?"

Allen is a singularly unique Apple expert. A Berkeley, Calif.-based retired 911 emergency dispatcher, Allen has become fascinated -- dare I say obsessed -- with prying into the black box that is the Apple Store.

As Allen tells it, he wandered into the opening of store No. 9 back in 2001, started a blog about the experience called -- for people crazed enough to line up "In Front Of" an Apple Store to get in. And then has spent two to three hours a day, entirely unpaid, publishing essentially a post a day that digs ridiculously deep into Apple Inc.'s retail store financials, news and strategy.

"I'm interested in the topic," he said dryly.

If investors take the time to take a tour of this labor of retail love, they'll realize what an analysis anchor property Allen has become. Day by day, year by year, most every single piece of Apple retail news is dissected, whether it be midyear openings of stores in Berlin or Sweden or how the Brazil store will be the first location ever in the southern hemisphere. And don't forget the pristine spreadsheets that break out the unit performance of the retail operations. They are worth bookmarking all by themselves.

The summer for bricks and mortar
What makes Allen especially investor-worthy this summer is that 2013 is shaping up to be the year traditional bricks and mortar will play a central role in selling hot new consumer tech.

Never mind that this about-face makes every pure-play Web outfit look preposterous, but no less than Web oligarch Google ( GOOG) is making a dramatic push into real-world retail selling with store openings reportedly set for this year in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Beleaguered software maker Microsoft ( MSFT) also announced last week that it would follow Samsung's 1,400 Samsung Experience Shops, with mini shops also inside Best Buy ( BBY). Start-ups are also sensing live retail is hot. Among many, a former Amazon ( AMZN) exec named Nadia Shouraboura is starting a blended online and retail store called Hointer.

When I asked Allen which -- if any -- of these new, real world players could copy the success of Apple, he did not hesitate.

"It's what Ron Johnson and Steve Jobs figured out when they started the latest-generation stores," Allen told me. "They only talked about that in snippets, so it takes a lot of time to put all the pieces together. But what emerges is the view that people think it's the fixtures or the setting that moves the product. It's not. A store is simply a place that correctly matches people to the experience of the product."

Allen explained that Jobs and Johnson were obsessed with the details, such as the quality of their salespeople: Two-thirds have college degrees, a major location with 250 employees might speak 15 different languages and those with backgrounds as musicians or artists get preference over business grads.

This creates, Allen says, a setting for the iPod or iMac that enhances but not overwhelms. "The store stays out of the way," he said. "The Apple iPhone makes the Apple store, not the other way around."

And if you visit, like I have, a Samsung Experience or a Google Chrome mini store in a Best Buy, you will see how right Allen is.

"Samsung, to me, is just putting out more screens. The Galaxy S4 is nice, but you can figure it out on you own," he said. "Chromebooks don't need a store. It's just a cheap notebook. Google Glass might have it. But again, we are going to have to wait to see it."

I asked him what he expects to happen when products don't have that core retail "it" factor.

"I think you'll see a lot of early interest as people check the stores out," he said. After that, traffic trails off as people ask themselves why do need to go to a store. "Many of these tech outlets just sort of dry up," he said.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.