Commentary

Store Wars

Apple StoreBest Buy plans to open 40 new standalone mobile stores this fiscal year and aims to increase its share of the mobile phone market to 15%, the company's new CEO Brian Dunn said Thursday. He noted that customers have responded well to Best Buy Mobile displays offering popular smartphones such as the iPhone and the new Palm Pre in a single location. Manufacturers stand to benefit from Best Buy's mobile retailing expansion as well.

But to the extent that rivals like Palm and BlackBerry want to compete directly with Apple in the growing smartphone market, they should also consider opening their own stores to showcase their wares. If they're opening their own app storefronts to compete with the App Store, why not physical stores to compete with Apple's gleaming temples of technology?

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True, Apple offers thousands of products from headphones to notebook and desktop computers, making operating a retail store a more natural step. But smartphone competitors to could benefit from opening a handful of dedicated stores in key markets as well. Like Apple stores, they could provide a higher level of customer service than consumers could get from box stores or wireless carrier outlets.

And with smartphones offering a wider range of features and third-party apps than ever, giving people more opportunity to test out devices in a low-pressure atmosphere makes sense.

There's also the publicity factor. The lines wrapping around Apple stores for new iPhone launches have become newsworthy events in themselves. For that matter, the release of any highly anticipated smartphone has become almost as hyped as a big movie opening. BlackBerry and others could take better advantage of that phenomenon with their own stores serving as media props.

Even pre-paid phones are getting their own stores now. Last month, Boost Mobile, Sprint's popular pre-paid service, announced plans to open 50 new retail outlets by year's end to keep customers rolling in. Will smartphone makers follow suit?

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