Asante Lewis, 15, donned a pair of headphones and settled in for a long session playing the video game “Overwatch.”
The setting? A funky new electronics store in San Francisco’s Westfield mall that invites gamers to play as long as they want, without pressuring them to buy anything. It’s a haven for Millennials, a sort of dark-lounge version of Apple’s light, airy flagships, with low lighting that highlights the pulsing glow from keyboards, mice and mousepads.
This is the first North American store for Razer, a Southern California company that makes a line of powerful gaming PCs and accessories. Its focus on customer experience rather than immediate sales is a sign of the times for the retail industry, which is raising brand awareness as online business booms but bricks-and-mortar sales struggle.
“They never ask me, ‘Do you want to buy this, or you should really try this, or you might want to invest your money in this,’” Asante said. “They encourage people to sit down and play. You can come in and do your thing.”
The store, which opened in May, looks nothing like the upscale clothier that used to occupy the space. Instead of racks overflowing with shirts and suits, two tables in the middle offer space for customers to sit and play games on Razer laptops.
Four big-screen monitors line the black walls, with a larger cluster of monitors on a 12-foot-by-9-foot space visible from the street. Often, the screens project video from big e-sports tournaments held around the world.
During a recent afternoon, more than a dozen customers were able to watch Asante playing “Overwatch” on the big screen. Others played a variety of titles, from “League of Legends” to “Madden NFL Football.” A sound system pounded out electronica music as a scent-producing machine added a somewhat floral fragrance.
“Retail is finally getting back to understanding that customer experience matters more than having all available products on their shelves,” said Maya Mikhailov, an adjunct professor of marketing and strategy at New York University and co-founder of the mobile marketing app platform maker GPShopper.
The San Francisco store is Razer’s fourth, following others opened in the past year in Taipei, Manila and Bangkok. The privately held company, which has a valuation of $1 billion, according to Fortune magazine, is opening another store Sunday in Shanghai.
Razer has become one of the best-known brands in the $99.6 billion global video game market, according to industry research firm NewZoo.
Employees are trained not to put any sales pressure on customers, according to Scott Jackson, its global retail marketing director. The employees encourage customers to play as long as they want if other customers aren’t waiting for a turn.
“There (are) no sales targets or commissions for any of our staff,” Jackson said. “We don’t ask customers if they want to buy anything. We wanted to create a place that our fans, gamers and anyone interested in our products can just hang out.”
Razer’s strategy, Mikhailov said, is similar to old-fashioned record stores, where customers could spend hours browsing through albums and talking to clerks who were considered experts in music.
It’s a path blazed more recently by subscription makeup company Birchbox and online menswear maker Bonobos, which have also opened retail stores to let customers see and touch their products.
“They’re really more interested in selling you the experience,” Mikhailov said. “It also creates brand fans. They have to drive a feeling, a point of view and an experience.”
She expects more companies to experiment with stores like Razer’s.
“What retailers are slowly and painfully finding out is the old way of retail is not effective,” she said.
The Razer store connects well with the company’s primary customer base, namely video game players ages 15 to 25 who keep coming back for more, said Kit Yarrow, a professor emeritus of consumer psychology at Golden Gate University.
“It fits with (Millennials) and the way they develop affections for brands,” Yarrow said. Companies can present themselves to a new generation of users, which is “really the key to longevity for any brand,” she said.
Gamers like Deandre Stallworth, 25, of San Francisco are happy to while away the hours at Razer.
“It’s really peaceful here,” Stallworth said after a spirited round of “Mortal Kombat XL” with his girlfriend. “People get along. They can take their time. It’s about video games, it’s about people who enjoy their life inside the Internet world. They can play with the consoles, they can play with all the PCs.”
“I like coming in here; it’s pretty chill,” his girlfriend, Kim Parcasio, 22, of Hayward, said. “You can network with people.”
The store does sell products, which it keeps discreetly hidden away in cabinets. Razer’s laptops aren’t cheap, ranging from $1,000 to $2,200, while keyboards run as much as $170 and mice as high as $150. The store also sells branded hoodies and other apparel, which are hanging in a corner.
Razer’s Jackson said the company isn’t concerned about whether customers buy equipment directly from the store, since they can also buy from nearby Microsoft and GameStop outlets or go online. In-store sales have exceeded company expectations, he said, though he declined to give specific numbers.
“Whether the stores make a profit on their own is not the main issue for us,” he said. “We don’t have to operate in the same way as a Macy’s or a Sears or a Walmart.”