If space was Star Trek's final frontier, then surely retail must be the equivalent for networking vendors. While it's long been realised that SOHO is the last great virgin marketplace, the question has always been: how do you approach it?
According to Rod Orrick, managing director of specialist retail distributor Marketing Results, the key lies in appealing to the eye.
"The difficulty with doing anything with networking in retail is you've got to have a very good visual story," says Orrick. "If people can't visually understand what they are trying to achieve, ie, the concept of connecting computers and the benefits they receive out of doing that, then it's a very difficult thing to explain to them."
Orrick sees two types of buyers existing in the retail sector. The first is the home user who now has two or more PCs at home, and wants to get the benefits of sharing resources across them. The second is the small-business person, who's realised the benefits of having PCs but wants to do things like sharing data, printers or Internet access.
Marketing Results is currently involved in setting up six networking-based concept store-within-a-stores at Harvey Norman, centred on Artisoft's LANtastic peer-to-peer networking software. "What we're doing is putting together a complete solution that enables these people to be able to look at what they're buying, how they are buying it, what they need and why they need it."
Orrick says a lot of groundwork needs to be done for networking to be successful in a retail environment. "You can't just say I'm going to go into a retail store and start selling networking products. You've got support of the end user, and you've got training of the sales staff to try and turn them into some sort of network product champion, both at a software and a hardware level.
"And then you've got the visualisation theme as well. If consumers are in a low service store, how do they realise that they need these network cards, that they know what type of cabling they need to purchase and all those sorts of things?"
For Artisoft, the retail sector represents a prime opportunity to advance its standing in the SOHO marketplace. However, managing director David Hudson says such forays are still viewed as very much in the experimental stage. Only six Harvey Norman stores will participate in the trial.
As for Harvey Norman itself, the retailer is about to launch six other store-within-a-store networking centres, based around vendors such as Novell, and put together with distributors Express Data and Tech Pacific.
Communications coordinator Tim Edwards says HN will look to emulate the success of its Internet stores, but says finding the right formula has proven more difficult than expected. "Eight to ten months ago we said we were going to get into networking along with our Internet store-within-a-store concept. The Internet's gone ahead very well, but we found that after doing some in-store surveys and research it probably isn't as easy to sell through retail as what we thought, and the market wasn't as educated or mature as what we expected."
Edwards says that ultimately Harvey Norman wants to offer a booth that appeals to both novice and expert networkers. "It's set up such that if the expert goes there he shies away from all the training material and just picks up the bits he wants. But the novice can actually learn something and work out how to put their own network together at home, or use our guys, or whatever it might be. That's going to take a bit of time to put together.
"Networking customers in general are a down- to-earth lot," says Edwards. "They know what they want. They just want a bit of education or they want to pick up the product.
"The other thing we found from the networking customer is that they don't buy first time, so they come back three or four times. They might get a cable this time, they might get a card the next time, and they slowly build up their network. It's not a matter of buying enough stuff to put a 20-user network together in one day. So that sort of research has made us rethink what we're going to do."
The concept stores will be rolled out soon in a range of different sized HN stores. Edwards says their experimental nature means HN won't generate a lot of noise about them. "We want to see if that mix of products works, whether or not Artisoft can exist by itself or it needs to be within the mainstream concept area, what the demographics are, etc."
While Harvey Norman pushes ahead with its concept stores, other major retailers are hanging back. Marketing Results has been talking to Dick Smith Electronics about a push into its PowerHouse store, but a Dick Smith spokesperson said at this time networking is not a focus for the company.