First things first – a lot of publications are reporting this as the first BlackBerry store or the first RIM authorized store (including our own based on a quote in the Detroit News). That’s not quite the case.
While the brand new Farmington Hills, Michigan location is the only BlackBerry store in existence at the time of this writing, it is actually the fourth BlackBerry specific store to open in history – with the other three now defunct locations having been in Toronto, London and Charlotte. The original three stores had near mirror offerings and appeal according to published reports describing them.
The question we had is if they were launched too early in the BlackBerry’s mainstream adoption and consumer friendly phone models to have achieved success or if the idea itself simply won’t work.
Pictures and phone conversations with Wireless Giant, who is behind the BlackBerry store, may be worth a thousand words, but we decided seeing it in real life would be even better, so off to Michigan we went this week and are bringing back first hand coverage of the store.
While the store is located in a very heavily populated area and across the street from a well trafficked mall, we couldn’t help but notice that there was a Verizon store, an AT&T Wireless store and a Sprint store all within walking distance.
And as Engadget blasted RIM for, it really isn’t very impressive looking from the outside (though Cory was very much in love with the BlackBerry ice sculptures that were on display in the front of the store). We walked inside and I’ll admit it looks damn good for such a little “shack” from the outside.
BlackBerry models from AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint lined the walls and center aisle displays (Alltel does not have service in the area where the store is located, so Alltel phones are not displayed or sold. And sorry Canadians, you won’t find any of your providers there either).
A quick look at the pricing tags made it obvious that the BlackBerry store was able to offer the same discounts on the devices as the “official” stores located down the street. We were immediately greeted by an employee named Grady Wicker who was dressed to impress with a big genuine smile. We explained who we were and while we waited to talk a bit with management, Grady showed us around the store.
If there is one thing I can tell you from this excursion, it is that the customer service reps who work at the BlackBerry store, called “BlackBerry Experts” are extremely knowledgeable about their products and services. Grady was easily able to rattle off facts about each of the devices and their service providers.
Additionally, he managed to sell me some software while I waited.
Equally impressive was Brett Boike, another “BlackBerry Expert” who was like a BlackBerry Encyclopedia. If he ever wants a side job writing about BlackBerry phones, we hope he’ll come see us. He managed to sell us some accessories as well. This staff gets an A+ for presentation, knowledge and salesmanship.
The knowledge of this staff wasn’t simply good timing on our part for coming when knowledgeable employees were working. The “BlackBerry Experts” go through extensive training with not only all four wireless carriers featured in their store, but they also get extensive training from RIM on the devices themselves. Being a staff member at the BlackBerry store seems like a badge of honor that the staff proudly – and rightly so in our opinion – display.
After I’d purchased accessories I hadn’t planned to but couldn’t wait to play with, we were greeted by Jason Wolfenden, a District Manager for Wireless Giant. We immediately joked that the location, while in a busy area, wasn’t in a major metro area. He explained that the area was growing in population and coupled with the fact that there are many corporations in and around the Farmington Hills area the store was experiencing a huge diversity in the number of people coming through. While the first burst of foot traffic was from the BlackBerry experienced, it has quickly started to expand into reaching a broad range in regards to demographics.
Indeed, it appears their trainings will be targeting a broad set of demographics as well. The training offerings, which have yet to be finalized, will cover everything from time saving tips and tricks to high level corporate training sessions. Their aim is to offer something for every level of BlackBerry user. The store has a “training room” which looks like a very modern boardroom that will be the location for seminars led by BlackBerry trainers and RIM representatives.
The training room will also likely host demo days put on by the various service providers at the BlackBerry store for the BlackBerry curious. Corporate training will be available both off-site and on-site. No word yet on whether or not “ala carte” or “private training sessions” will be available. They also aren’t ruling out the possibility of services like information backup services, OS upgrades and firmware upgrades in the future as well.
We were a bit little less than dazzled with the amount accessories featured in the store (skins, batteries, cradles and cases were plentiful, but other accessories were few and far between). However, the eventual aim is for the physical BlackBerry store to carry all of the offerings available at the online BlackBerry store. Additionally, now that we’ve had some time to think about it, we actually don’t see the “official” carrier stores as a hindrance to the BlackBerry store.
As a matter of fact, we think having the ability to compare, live and on the spot, the coverage between the four featured carriers at the BlackBerry store and the four models attached to each one of those carriers will draw in comparison shoppers who might have alternately had to visit the stores of several carriers. And with the pricing of BlackBerry phones, we think most consumer level shoppers will want to compare before making a commitment, especially when the ability to do so is convenient for them.
We have to say that all in all, we were impressed. The staff stands out as being friendly, more knowledgeable and more helpful than any staff we’ve ever encountered in the traditional “official” carrier stores. And there was a steady stream of foot traffic in the store during the two hours we were there – both from people browsing phones and people walking in with a set mission to buy an accessory. While prior attempts at BlackBerry stores may not have been successful, we feel timing had a big play.
A few years ago, RIM didn’t offer “consumer friendly models” like the Pearl and Curve. Additionally, data plans have become cheaper while consumer expectations that a cell phone should be able to access the Internet is at an all time high. Celebrities have also done their part, putting the BlackBerry in front of the paparazzi and making them not only highly functional, but “cool”.
This may actually be the right time for the BlackBerry store to finally succeed. All we can do now is watch and see. And stay tuned for next week! Along with some great photos, we also got some awesome video coverage of the store.
**Update: we posted the BlackBerry store video: