Several stores in the Toledo area have gotten a smarter look in the last year or so, and it’s likely that more will follow in the near future.
Smart Home technology, which ranges from simple electric plugs to whole-house systems that can control a variety of electronics and appliances, are beginning to make a big splash with consumers.
Kurt Hisey of Jamiesons’ Audio/Video in Sylvania Township holds a touchpad that controls the whole-house remotely located distributed audio and video system, in background.
Big box retailers like Best Buy, Target, Meijer, and Kohl’s are responding by adding such products to their inventories. But more importantly, they are devoting precious shelf space for displays to show shoppers how Wi-Fi-enabled light bulbs, thermostats, door locks, and more can be synced together in a home.
Experts say educating consumers about Smart Home technology remains the biggest sales obstacle.
“It’s definitely still a new category for customers, so they’re learning about it,” said David Hohs, an electronics product buyer for Meijer Inc., which has been selling Smart Home products for about a year.
Meijer has put up “live displays” in many of its 224 stores, including its store at 1391 Conant St. in Maumee. The displays feature video screens with the Amazon Echo that explains what it can do.
“We don’t just put it on the shelf,” Mr. Hohs said.
At the area’s Buckeye Broadband stores at 4111 Talmadge Rd. in Toledo and 3050 Navarre Ave. in Oregon, consumers not only can see Smart Home products, they can play with them, a feature Buckeye calls “try on” technology.
Block Communications Inc. owns Buckeye Broadband, which provides cable and Internet service in the Toledo area, and is the parent company of The Blade.
Andrew ‘Wedge’ Gordon, department supervisor at Best Buy, works with a display at the store in Toledo, one of 700 locations at which the chain has set up displays. It’s important, he says, to talk to the consumer about the technology.
“At our flagship store on Talmadge we have a virtual living room and sample of a front porch with a door. You ring the door bell and it activates a camera whose image is transmitted across the room to an iPad,” said Sean Brushett, chief revenue officer of Buckeye Broadband. The display also features Smart Home thermostats, audio, and lighting systems, Amazon Echo, and Google Home products, all of which the store sells.
“We’re constantly adding to the inventory, including third-party devices that are in demand,” Mr. Brushett said. “We’re trying to be ahead of the trend, and I like to think we’re the only place where you can get it all — the Internet, tech support with Buckeye Brainiacs, and the hardware.”
On Wednesday, Kohl’s announced a deal with Amazon to have 1,000-square-foot stores-within-a-store that feature Amazon’s smart-home technology in a hands-on, interactive setup. The “Amazon Smart Home Experience” will be in 10 select Kohl’s stores in the Los Angeles and Chicago areas starting in October.
Best Buy has added enhanced product displays featuring videos and hands-on opportunities with products at 700 stores to showcase voice-activated devices such as Amazon’s Alexa-controlled Echo and Google’s Assistant-controlled Google Home.
The chain’s two new in-store Smart Home displays, one for Amazon products and the other for Google’s, arrived about a month and a half ago at its Toledo-area stores. And throughout the stores are signs indicating which products, such as vacuum cleaners or TVs, work with either Alexa or Google Assistant.
“Just throwing a product on the wall and not having anyone talk to you, that’s not what we’re after,” said Andrew “Wedge” Gordon, home theater, gaming, and entertainment supervisor at Best Buy’s Toledo store at 4505 Monroe St.
Jamieson's Audio/Video designs systems to automate home functions so consumers have better control over them.
At Best Buy, selling Smart Home products has become a mix of both education and practicality, he added.
“Some people do come up to you and say, ‘Tell me a little more about this, tell me what’s going on, tell me why I would want it,’” Mr. Gordon said.
“Then there’s other times when people have done their research, they know a little bit about it, but they don’t know the extent. They’ll say, ‘I know a little bit about Alexa — my friend uses it do trivia questions.’ And we say, ‘Well, did you know it can do much more than that?’”
Mr. Gordon said the new Smart Home interactive store displays have been helpful in the consumer-education process. And when a customer suddenly gets why such products are helpful, it’s a fun moment for both customer and sales person.
“It’s kind of been that moment when everyone was thinking what the year 2000 would be like. It’s kind of been like that. ‘You mean I can do this with my voice?’ or ‘That one thing gets me all of this?’ ” Mr. Gordon said.
Zion Market Research said the popularity of these products is fueled largely by growing consumer awareness.
The research firm said the global market for smart-home products — kitchens, security and access control, lighting, home health care, HVAC control, etc. — was $24.1 billion in 2016 but is expected to grow at an annual rate of 14.5 percent and total $53.45 billion by 2022.
The largest market for such products is North America.
Experts say the fact that so many stores are not only adding the products, but devoting significant real estate to showing shoppers how they actually work, speaks volumes to how bullish they are for the potential of connected home technology.
“In a store, every inch counts,” said Jill Dvorak, senior director of digital retail for the National Retail Federation.
“This is a strong signal that these stores believe they’ve bought appropriately, but also that [smart-home tech] is what customers will want,” she added.
Best Buy is training hundreds of employees to become in-home experts who visit a customer’s house and advise them on smart-home devices. An adviser for the three area Best Buy stores is now undergoing a five-week training course and expects to start house calls in October.
Even though there’s a learning curve for consumers, there are signs that retailers believe smart-home technology may be the big seller this holiday season.
Smart light bulbs for sale at Best Buy on Monroe Street in Toledo.
Ms. Dvorak pointed to Kohl’s deal with Amazon as a key sign of that.
Though Kohl’s has quietly been in the technology retail segment for some time — including opening an innovation center outside Silicon Valley — partnering with Amazon signals they are moving all-in on the products.
“I think everybody is motivated this holiday to give what they think the customers want in-store. Give them Amazon items, give them Apple’s items, give them Google’s items,” Ms. Dvorak said.
Even the Appliance Center, which does not yet sell Smart Home products, is considering adding them, said Mark Clark, manager of the Appliance Center Home Store, located at 321 Illinois Ave. in Maumee.
“It’s something that we’re looking at for the new facility” that opens next month at 5656 Monroe St. in Sylvania, Mr. Clark said.
The push by Amazon and Google to put their products in the forefront at bricks-and-mortar stores may have peaked recently when Amazon, fresh off its purchase of Whole Foods Inc., got a publicity boost when it sold its Alexa-powered Echo Dot devices in Whole Foods stores.
“You couldn’t have had a more strong signal for how big the Smart Home category is getting and how pervasive that’s going to be,” Ms. Dvorak said.
But while retailers are making a big push to highlight Smart Home products this year, it may be too early to tell if it will grow substantially as predicted or customers will tire of it quickly.
Jamiesons’ Audio/Video at 5421 Monroe St. in Sylvania Township has been selling Smart Home products and systems for several years.
The local retailer designs systems that can automate functions in a home or provide systems that give a consumer more direct control over home appliances and functions.
Todd Gaylord, Jamiesons’ in-home automation specialist, said he has found people like home automation — systems that control lighting, temperature, and security without requiring much interaction or attention.
“The automation we use is Control4, and it is Alexa-friendly. But we can have lights and thermostats built into the system, and it doesn’t even require voice,” Mr. Gaylord said.
“Sensors detect when you enter a room. And you can have a path of lights from the moment you get out of your car and go into the house,” he added.
But Mr. Gaylord said he thinks voice control will go the way of 3D for TVs, becoming a much-hyped product that quietly fades.
“We had Alexa, and we quickly got tired of it in my house,” Mr. Gaylord said.
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