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In Silicon Valley, a retail store as product laboratory

Speck, a leading maker of cases and covers for devices like iPhones, iPads, Macs, Kindles, and others, sees its new Palo Alto, Calif., store mainly as a way to see how its customers interact with its products when they can get their hands on them.

Smartphone and laptop case and cover maker Speck opened its first retail store in Silicon Valley Thursday night.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

PALO ALTO, Calif.--It's hard to imagine a larger collection of iPhones in one place outside of an Apple store than were in evidence Thursday in this heart-of-Silicon Valley city.

It wasn't one of Apple's famous establishments, but it definitely was a shiny brand-new retail store--this was the grand opening of the Speck store and a celebration of that company's wide selection of cases and covers for iPhone, iPad, Mac, and many other high-tech devices.

At least a couple hundred invited guests and neighborhood friends came out to eat hamburgers, tacos, ice cream, and other fare and to help Speck christen its new showroom and to peruse tables with plaid iPhone 4 cases and blue hard-shell iPad covers, glass displays full of colorful items, and a wall packed with every imaginable product.

But while the company certainly plans to let customers buy its many products here, it says that in-store sales aren't at all the point.

"It's a marketing laboratory," Speck CEO Irene Baran said of the store. "We have a Web site, and we do some social media. But we like to do a little old fashioned looking people in the eye too."

The company is selling all of its products at the store, but says the real goal is for the establishment to be a test bed. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Essentially, Baran said, Speck will stock the store with its entire collection of products, as well as the occasional prototype, and let those who come in serve as a kind of informal focus group. In other words, she said, the store is a physical test bed, a place where Speck can see in real-time and up close and personal, how customers--and would-be customers--feel about its products.

And Baran added, explaining that the store--which also houses the company's customer service and sales departments--and which is within a block or so of both its marketing and product development offices and its headquarters building, will be a one-of-a-kind effort.

"The intention is not to open more stores," Baran said. "I just can't see it (opening more stores). Hopefully, what we learn here means we do a much better job of servicing our [retail partners]."

That was a disappointing sentiment to well-known technology and sex writer Violet Blue, who was one of the guests at Thursday night's opening party.

"They need to open another store," especially one in San Francisco, said Blue, who blogs for CNET sister site ZDNet. "They just need to...I can't let them get away with not opening another store."

Sent over by Apple
Speck's biggest retail partner is Apple, which sells many of the company's iPhone, iPad, and Mac covers and cases at its own hit stores. But on Thursday, the rumor was that employees at the nearby Palo Alto Apple store had been sending some would-be customers over to the Speck store since the soft launch of the new establishment a couple weeks ago.

That's certainly a good sign for Speck, regardless of whether it cares how many of its products it sells here.

Asked how Speck will measure the success of the new store, Baran said that it's really all about getting people in the door and getting feedback from them. "Sales are nice," she said, "but our goal is to be able to talk to people."

The idea, she explained, is that by observing how people interact with the dozens of products on display inside the store, Speck can get a sense of what works and what doesn't. "If someone does have all the [product] choices in front of them," Baran said, "what do they [actually] choose?"

That could be important information for a company that does much of its business online--and it certainly expects to incorporate some of what it learns by watching people who come in on its Web site and with its displays in its partners' retail stores.

But that doesn't mean there won't be pressure on Speck to do well with this store, which is located so close to so many of Silicon Valley's most iconic companies and institutions--Stanford, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Facebook, Tesla, and many others are within a few miles.

"We're in the heart of innovation," said Kris Napier, client director at the digital consulting firm Resource Interactive (which is helping build out Speck's online presence), "so they're going to have...to push the envelope."

But Napier didn't look like she was worried about Speck's ability to achieve its goals with the new store. "I think it's a great idea," she said. "I think it's a great idea, a good opportunity for Speck to see and learn [and to] test out new products and new thinking around new product concepts and product messaging."

Plus, Napier said, Speck is already "on the edge of [product] innovation, so I think they're going to take retail space to the next level."