Is it okay, I ask, if I browse around? "Let me give you a tour," the young sales associate responds warmly, before he leads me around the Samsung store at the Toronto Eaton Centre, past the tables of tablets and phones and the buzzing virtual-reality stations, then up a grand spiral staircase to the test kitchen.
None of this feels like conventional mall retail – not the one-on-one attention nor the attractions nor, indeed, the design of the space. Created by Toronto's Quadrangle Architects, the 21,000-square-foot store reflects the new state of retail: focused not on hustling you from hello to buy, but on creating an experience that captures shoppers' attention and affection.
This Samsung Experience Store, which opened in January, sits on the northeastern end of the downtown mall, looking inward and also outward to the heavily trafficked Yonge-Dundas Square. It represents a new brand of retail space – the showroom – which serves a different role in today's rapidly evolving retail landscape.
"We realize that people have many options about where to purchase the products," explains David Moisey, Samsung Canada's director of retail marketing, as we stand by a rounded kitchen island. "But we want to spend time with them in the store to ensure they understand the product they're considering buying." And, Moisey adds, the company wants to establish a deeper connection: "It is a vehicle for us to engage them as customers."
That demands a novel kind of interior. Conventional retail design wants to keep you on a single path, put merchandise in your face, then coax you toward cashing out. It's loud, bright, directive, packed full of stuff. This place is, by comparison, quiet. There is a radical amount of empty floor space. The dominant colour – of the tiled floor and felt-lined walls – is grey.
The formal language ties in with Samsung's design vocabulary of curves and rounded corners. The walls are decorated with recessed wave forms, subtly lit with recessed LEDs; hard elements, such as the product display tables and a wood-clad box that surround the kitchen, all have rounded corners.
This language expresses itself most clearly in the large, swoopy staircase, which is lined with a curving plane of white steel. "We wanted to unify everything into an infinite loop of continuity," says George Foussias, a design director at Quadrangle, "a fluid motion that wraps around the entire space. The idea of movement and curvature continues. You never reach a dead-end corner. Everything is circular."
Speaking of infinite loops, the obvious point of comparison here is the Apple Store. That other tech behemoth is perhaps the leading exponent of the experience store. Over the past decade, Apple has worked to establish a particular and very spare design vocabulary; the company received a U.S. patent for its design in 2013 and has since been pushing toward an ever-finer minimalism, working largely with British architects Foster & Partners. Apple is widely rumoured to be opening a Toronto flagship in a Foster-designed tower dubbed the One. It recently opened a riverside store in Chicago with seamless glass walls and not a logo in sight.
So is this a tech thing? In part, yes. "In the case of retailer-manufacturers, such as Apple and Samsung, it is all about their own brand," says Tony Hernandez, the Eaton Chair in Retailing at Ryerson University's Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity.
However, other retailers, facing the rise of online shopping and changing consumer behaviour, will follow suit. "As more retailers grapple with finding the right balance and integrating their online and physical presence," Hernandez says, "you will likely see a growing number [shift] more store space away from transaction to experience."
In October, the upscale department store Nordstrom opened a concept called Nordstrom Local in a wealthy Los Angeles neigbourhood. It includes a café and bar and provides alteration services and personal shopping using tablets; once you decide to try something on, the garment can be delivered to the shop or straight to your home.
As with Nordstrom, Samsung is building its experience partly around personal connections. The kitchen hosts classes with chefs such as Anna Olson and Brandon Olsen. Of course, staff will be happy to explain how your Samsung smartphone can connect to your Samsung smartfridge, which has Spotify and internal cameras that can show you if you've got milk.
In a sense, Foussias suggests, the architects are learning from the principles of digital user-interface design. The space, like a good operating system, is legible, simple, adaptable and visually coherent. "It will accommodate the ebbs and flows of new products," he adds. "We've tried to future-proof it as much as we can."
But what's most interesting here is what's on a screen. Moisey offers me a chance to test one of the company's VR stations – headsets paired with motorized chairs that let you navigate a virtual world. I strap in and choose a boat race. In seconds, I'm roaring through the reeds of a tropical swamp, juddering as I take the corners hard and getting, turn by turn, increasingly queasy. Finally, I take the helmet off my head and I'm back, bathed in the soft light of the store. All those grey curves have never looked better.