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iPod accessory stores go brick-and-mortar

Two companies are bucking online retail trends by opening walk-in shops catered exclusively to iPod users. Photos: Shops for iPod lovers

When Joe Ryan started talking about his plans to open a brick-and-mortar store filled almost exclusively with iPod accessories, people said he was out of his mind.

After four successful years heading up an Apple retail site, Think Different Store, the idea of launching a walk-in store sounded backward, if not risky, particularly in light of overhead and staffing costs and news of big retailers shuttering stores due to online competition, he said.

Brick-and-mortar iPod stores

Now, however, with one busy 3,000-square-foot iPod accessory store and another one in the works, Ryan just might be leading a new trend. "I've had a lot of calls about franchising," said the former programmer, who adds that he's enjoying the human contact associated with brick-and-mortar retailing.

"It's so much fun being out with the people instead of sitting behind my computer," he said. "I just love the reaction from the customer."

Think Different appeared to be the trailblazer in such efforts, with the opening of its physical Long Island, N.Y., shop--called the 1-800-iPod.com store--last September. But about that same time, Jonathan Cole, managing director of U.K. Apple reseller Computer Warehouse, was busy turning his vision of a London-based iPod boutique chain into a reality now called PopXpress.

PopXpress opened its first shop off London's Liverpool Street in November and its second one in the city's Piccadilly Circus in February. The company plans to open 10 to 12 stores by the end of 2006, which will mean opening two branches every three months, Cole said.

"The first store was fantastically successful," he said. "And it looks like the second store is going to do pretty well, too."

The two companies have very different business models. Think Different has a massive suburban store with its mail-order business in the back.

PopXpress' stores, on the other hand, are in very small spaces and so far are located in high-profile urban shopping districts. Designed in conjunction with Apple Computer, they take the iPod's minimalist approach even "a little further," Cole said, with extremely simple and clean displays.

But the two companies are on the same page when it comes to catering to that very specific iPod customer: The Think Different shop offers iPod classes and PopXpress has three specialists roaming its small stores.

Executives from both companies feel they are leading a niche that has room to grow.

"We're definitely right out front," Cole said, speaking for his company. "We're six months to a year ahead of anyone else."

JupiterResearch analyst Michael Gartenberg, however, isn't convinced that a new trend is afoot. "I don't think you're going to see a lot of iPod accessory boutique stores in a mall near you."

But the ventures do say something about the iPod's popularity and stature in the marketplace, he said. "No one is opening Creative Zen stores right now."