Google Pixel Chromebook: Will it push the search giant into the retail business?

The future of shopping was going to be easy and convenient, the experts said. Instead of braving the crowds at the local mall or big box store complex, we’d all stay at home in our PJs, sipping a cup of Joe, sitting behind a keyboard to shop for clothes, food, and other necessities online.

But that future, predicted during the 1990s, has yet to arrive. Here in the 21st century, we still head to the mall and our local shops to buy most of the things we need and, instead of getting out of the retail game, new companies are jumping in, especially technology companies.

The latest tech giant expected to open its own stores is Google. The idea of a Google retail chain, first reported by 9-to-5 Google, isn’t so far-fetched even though Google has so far focused on direct sales to consumers through its online Google Play store.

The company already has Chromebook kiosks inside Best Buy locations across the United States. These stores don’t handle sales directly; they are merely a way for people to try out Chrome OS products.

Kiosks are nice, but Google needs a stronger, independent retail presence as it moves beyond a company best known for offering intangible Web services. Every year, Google packages more of its online services into flashy Google-branded hardware devices such as Nexus tablets and smartphones as and the forthcoming Google Glass.

Google's latest hardware: The Pixel

The latest flashy gadget that could impress shoppers on a Google retail show floor is the Pixel, a touchscreen Chromebook with an impressive display resolution and an even more impressive price tag.

Google Pixel Chromebook

The $1,300 Pixel Chromebook features a 12.85-inch display with a resolution of 2560 pixels by 1700 pixels, with 239 pixels per inch, which is the highest pixel density of any laptop on the market, Google says. Under the hood, you get a 1.8GHz Intel “Ivy Bridge” Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 32GB solid state drive, and 1TB of free cloud storage for three years with Google Drive.

But all you get for software with your beautiful new machine is a glorified Web browser, called Chrome OS. That’s going to be a hard sell considering for one hundred dollars less than the Pixel you could pick up a 13-inch MacBook Air with the same processor and RAM, four times the physical storage, and it runs all kinds of desktop apps, including the Chrome Web browser.

I may be underestimating Google’s ability to convey its message of a Chromeified future through marketing and retail outreach. There’s no doubt the Pixel is a beautiful-looking product and sounds enticing, but I just can’t get past the idea that all you get with the Pixel is a browser in a box, albeit a beautiful one.

That’s exactly why reports of Google retail stores make a lot of sense. Who wouldn’t want to put their hands on a Pixel Chromebook and try it out before plunking down more than a grand? And who better than a Google-trained employee to show you how wonderful life with a Pixel Chromebook could be?

When Google finally releases Google Glass to the public, retail stores will also attract a lot of attention for the new non-prescription eyeglasses that merge smartphone functionality into a heads-up display.

Google Glass

Retail pricing estimates for Glass hover around $1,000—limited edition developer units are priced at $1,500. So, when Glass is added in with the Pixel, Google would have another pricey product requiring serious hands-on time before anyone would make a purchase.

That’s the real promise of a Google retail store. It’s not about pushing products out the door, but about offering a showroom for Google’s Android/Chrome/Web ecosystem, right?

Well, not quite, says Stephen Baker vice president of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research firm NPD Group. “The idea that you should open a showroom has been proven to be something close to a disaster and a waste of money,” Baker says. “A retail store works best when it is a combination of a showroom and a place to buy stuff. You lose the vibe, the excitement in the store if it turns into a museum. It’s a lot less interesting to the customer.”

Other tech retailers

Apple retail stores set the trend for technology retail by combining consumer outreach, education, and support, with a clean, simple, and beautiful sales floor. Company CEO Tim Cook recently said Apple plans in 2013 to expand the physical space of 20 of its store locations and open another 30 worldwide.

Not to be left behind by its longtime rival, Microsoft has followed Apple’s retail lead with a similar look and feel in its U.S.-only retail stores. Samsung recently opened a retail store in Canada, its first in North America, and rumblings of Amazon’s retail ambitions resurface every few months.

It’s not yet clear if Google’s reported retail plans would include selling third-party products or focus exclusively on Google-branded Nexus tablets and smartphones, and Chromebooks. Baker says Google would probably do something similar to Microsoft and use its stores to show off Google-related products and services, regardless of who makes them.

“They don’t really have enough hardware products to show people and fill up a store,” Baker says. So it’s a good bet you’ll see popular Android, Chrome, and possibly even Google TV products in a Google retail location.

Hopefully—at least from the company’s perspective—Google would be able to turn people on to the Google way and make a tidy profit from its stores as well. But it doesn’t necessarily have to, says Baker. “Just because they’re selling stuff doesn’t mean the store has to be profitable,” he says Baker.

Google certainly doesn’t want to lose money, Baker notes. But convincing people to purchase Google-focused hardware isn’t the only reason to go into retail, especially when you can use your stores to market a Googleified lifestyle directly to consumers.

And who knows? If Google’s retail assistants offer a compelling pitch, they might even convince a few people to plunk down $1,300 for a stunningly-packaged Web browser.

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