After a total of 15 years of mainstream computer products retailing it's hard to believe that there are any lucrative gaps left in the market but there is at least one, according to Software City's chief executive Alan Taylor. His plan is to inject a new level of service into the neglected area of software sales through a planned chain of multimedia superstores.
At the moment, the idea is being tested with the first Software City at the Citygate development on Kirkstall Road, Leeds.
Taylor, who has extensive experience in superstore retailing, especially through the setting up of Menzies Total Home Entertainment (THE) which is now the largest independent distributor of CDs, videos, books, video games and CD-ROMs, believes that the existing superstores, like Byte or PC World, concentrate too much on hardware. "It's almost as though the software was an afterthought," he maintains. "We've had a very positive reaction from the software developers and this is important because we want to get the backup as strong as possible both at the superstore and through our web site."
In the Leeds store, the 7,000 square feet of sales area houses over 5,000 software titles separated into three zones: work, learn and play, each with its own colour branding and logo. Within each zone there is a demonstration area where the latest games are on display and a multiscreen display at the rear of the store can be used to show promotional videos of up and coming releases.
Leeds is the first store of a planned chain of 50 by the end of this decade. It was opened on 9 August with a visit from Channel 4's Gamesmaster Patrick Moore. The 73-year old astronomer in his new guise as computer game guru signed autographs and let the younger visitors try on his Gamesmaster crown. As an extra lure to bring in the crowds, there were several special offers throughout the store and the offer of Sony Playstations at half price (u99.99) to the first 10 customers through the door. This resulted in one eager customer from Wakefield spending the night in the Software City car park to make sure he was the first in the queue on opening day.
Though Friday, being a working day, was more of a try-out for the instore systems, Saturday was the special day with the local Radio Aire roadshow beamed from the car park and Neighbours star Kimberley Davies (Annalise) dropping in to sign a few autographs. Software City was sure she'd be a crowd-puller and anticipated two or three times the first day's business, which saw around 700 customers at the superstore.
Special events on an opening day are not unusual but many of the "customers" turn up to see the celebrities but may never make a purchase. Taylor realises that it's not enough just to attract customers but to keep them coming back for more. This he plans to achieve through an extensive customer care strategy.
There are two basic levels of customer - the technically capable and the novice. Taylor believes that many of the sales people currently involved in computer sales are far too technical for the novices and has taken steps to ensure that his staff can talk to both the anorak and the anoraknophobic.
As assistant manager of the Leeds store, Adrian Walker is at the sharp end of the business. He said: "A lot of sales people are either too technically competent or see selling boxes as the be all and end all. Our aim is to offer the customer whatever level of support they need. Even if this means loading up the software for them to try before they buy then we have the facilities to do that. A good example occurred on Friday when a 70-year old woman turned up with her grandchildren. While the children were browsing through the shop she was soon trained up and racing round one of Microprose's Grand Prix 2 circuits."
In the broader sweep of education, Software City is opening its doors to school groups so they can try the latest educational software. Any business generated among the pupils will result in the school being given a percentage of the takings in the form of Software City stock. The company is also offering special discounts for educational establishments.
The internet suite of eight computers linked to an ISDN link is expected to be a major attraction. It not only provides a demonstration area for the internet software on sale but also offers a small Internet Trial Area where users can surf the net for u2.50 per half-hour or u4 an hour to find out what the web can offer them - a bit like an internet cafe without the food. There are trained staff on hand who can act as tutor and guide to show the customer how to get the best from the web.
One of the sites that neo-surfers will be shown is the www.softwarecity.co.uk pages. Although this is in development, the plan is to provide an area where customers can interact with the superstore. Alongside the usual company information pages, complete with sarcastic descriptions of key managerial staff, there will be chatlines for customers to swap hints, tips and comments; helplines to extend after sales services to the customer's home; product update information with special offers and reviews, and listings of special instore events.
These events are planned to keep the customers coming back. At the opening there was a demonstration bus with the latest Interactor Cushion from Aura being demonstrated. This backrest transforms sound into vibration to give added reality to gameplaying or even video viewing.
Barbara Buckley, Software City's marketing controller, says that this is the kind of event that they want to encourage. "Apart from the Aura bus, we have the Nintendo 64 on demonstration and future plans include a visit by the Sega bus and a mountain bike competition sponsored by VCI," she said, "There will also be theme weekends such as an educational one linked to the Royal Armouries which recently moved to Leeds and a Final Frontier celebration when Star Trekkers will be invited to turn up in costume for a weekend of science fiction related promotions."
The grand aim is to make the store a focus of the local computer-oriented community. Taylor sees the main brake on development as being the legal processes involved in leasing the right site. "The property world moves at a different pace. When you have four sets of solicitors to deal with you end up with more delays than games developers do," he joked. The truth behind this remark holds the key to the question: why Leeds for the first store? Buckley replies: "We were looking at several sites in major cities but this was the first one to come together. Leeds is an excellent site in a city that's coming up in the world."
At the moment enthusiasm is rampant within the Leeds store. The problem for Taylor will be to maintain the momentum as more superstores are opened (10 are planned within the next 12 months), to keep ahead of established players and to fight a rearguard action against the wannabees that will, no doubt, follow.
Store Type: Multimedia superstore specialising in software for leisure, education and business
Store Visited: Software City, Leeds Store
Manager: Michael Greenhalgh
History: Opened 9 August 1996 as first of a planned 50 stores nationwide
Customer Profile: Wide range from novice to expert computer users
Product range: Over 5,000 titles for PC, Macintosh, Nintendo, Sega, Sony and Amiga
Growth Potential: Cautious approach to ensure prime sites close to city centres but with a minimum of 7,000 sq ft.
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