The discount retailer recently remodeled the departments in a handful of stores across the country with waist-height, bright white tables and displays. The move fits a design trend seen in recent years at stores run by Apple Inc. and Best Buy Co. that give shoppers more hands-on experience with the goods.
"It's more a minimalist approach with space for consumers to touch and test the merchandise," said Chris Christopher, director of consumer electronics at IHS Global Insight in Massachusetts.
And it comes at a time when electronics sellers are seeing a major shift in product mix as the space that used to be devoted to cameras, which are declining rapidly, is giving way to square footage for cellphones.
Target is testing the new format to give customers a more convenient way to interact with products and services, according to spokeswoman Erica Julkowski. "Guests are looking for more interactive ways to make purchasing decisions about the latest technology," she said.
The concept is being tested in five stores nationwide. There was no word on how long the test will last or when Target executives may decide to take the idea to the rest of its approximately 1,800 stores.
Brett Laabs encountered the concept Wednesday at a Target in Minnetonka, Minn., where he was comparing phones for his son. Although he liked the look of the remodeled department, he left somewhat frustrated, wanting more information.
"I wish they would compare the plans better," he said. "But I did like the way I could feel and play with the phones."
Putting phones directly in the hands of customers is a reaction to showrooming and competition from online retailers like Amazon.com, Christopher, the IHS analyst, said.
The hope is that the test departments will create "reverse showrooming." That occurs when customers do preliminary research online at CNet or the carrier's site, for example, and then go to the retailer to buy, if it's in stock, Christopher said. It's easier to compare features and check reviews online, he said, but brick-and-mortar stores can put the phone in their hands faster, assuming it's in stock.
The challenge for Target and other electronics retailers is to give customers a better experience in the store than they have online. One way to accomplish that is to emphasize service, said Amy Koo, a senior analyst at Kantar Retail in Boston.
At the Minnetonka store Wednesday, several attentive staff members in electronics were catering to customers in the department. One employee said that staffing in electronics had been increased since the makeover, but Target officials would not confirm that.
Lowering sightlines and getting customers to play with the phones isn't enough, Koo said. "They need to make it more experiential and transformative by adding something that a consumer can't accomplish online. Like a headphones station," she said.
Electronics is the latest department to be given a makeover at Target. Cosmetics recently added concierges to pump up the service factor at 200 locations. In the Chicago area, Target is testing a new concept called Baby 360 aimed at new and expectant mothers.