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Testing the waters with area shoppers

November 10, 2012 12:10 am


The Cheesecake Factory desserts are available at the new Barnes & Noble store in the Central Park business district. The new bookstore - in the former Borders location - opened today, Nov. 7, 2012. (Robert A. Martin/The Free Lance-Star) ------ 2COL COLOR bz111012bnram1.jpg

Kathryn Carter of King George (left) reads a book in the new Barnes & Noble store in Central Park. business district. The new store features (top right) offerings from The Cheesecake Factory and bookstore - in the former Borders location - opened today, Nov. 7, 2012. (Robert A. Martin/The Free Lance-Star) ------ 2COL COLOR bz111012bestbuy2.jpg

A major focus of Central Park's newly redesigned Best Buy is hands-on displays that allow customers to interact more closely with the products before making a purchase decision. bz111012bestbuy1.jpg

The Best Buy in Central Park has been converted into one of the company's new concept stores. It is one of about 50 stores to get the new design. bz111012bnram5.jpg

Kathryn Carter (left) of King George browses at the new Barnes & Noble in Central Park, which has more focus on the Nook--and offers Cheesecake Factory desserts.

By Bill Freehling
By Bill Freehling

Central Park is serving as a test kitchen of sorts for at least three large U.S. retailers.

Barnes & Noble, Christmas Tree Shops and Best Buy are trying out new concepts at their stores in the Fredericksburg shopping center. Shoppers' reactions will help shape the retailers' future strategies.

The Barnes & Noble store that opened Wednesday in the former Borders space across from Target is the first that the book-focused retailer has opened in more than two years. The store's modern design and layout are part of a new concept for the Barnes & Noble chain, said store manager Becky Anderson.

Barnes & Noble's e-reader and tablet brand, the Nook, is emphasized at the store, demonstrating the company's efforts to expand its digital business to compete with and others. There is a large section of children's books and toys, and many kid-focused book readings and other interactive events are planned. The cafe sells Starbucks coffee and Cheesecake Factory desserts.

The store has an open layout and low shelves, which make it easy to get a good feel for the entire selection when a customer first walks through the glass doors. Large flat-screen televisions promote new books and hot sellers. About 80 people work at the new store, and more people will be hired.

Not far away from the Barnes & Noble store, workers are finishing up construction to transform the former Shoppers Food space into the new home of two retailers expected to open in the next few weeks: Buy Buy Baby and And That.

Christmas Tree Shops, which itself is a subsidiary of Bed Bath & Beyond, will own and operate the And That store. The merchandise and layout will be similar to what is found at Christmas Tree Shops. Only the name will be different.

Christmas Tree Shops sells a constantly changing array of bargain-priced items including home furnishings, housewares, clothing and gifts. But people outside the company's core New England market have had some confusion about the brand because of its seasonal-sounding name, said spokeswoman Michele Watkins.

As a result the company decided to try out the new name at the Central Park store. Watkins said the name comes from the fact that many shoppers say they go to Christmas Tree Shops to buy "this and that." She said the company will make future naming decisions based in part on how Fredericksburg-area residents react to the store.

Best Buy has been in Central Park for more than 15 years, but over the past five weeks construction crews have transformed the store to give it an entirely new feel. The results will be shown off today with a "grand re-opening" event that will feature Captain America and allow early birds to get a free breakfast and Best Buy gift cards.

As at Barnes & Noble, the new store features an open layout, clear directional signs and low shelves that allow shoppers to see the whole store from the front. Skylights have been added, and the emphasis is on wireless devices and customer service. In the middle of the store is a "Solution Central" kiosk where Best Buy workers will help customers troubleshoot and get the most out of their electronic devices. It's meant to promote a hands-on, interactive shopping experience.

The store remained opened throughout the transformation, said Michael Setti, a Best Buy manager who oversees the mobile-products section. Workers came at the end of regular business hours and left when the store reopened in the morning.

The Central Park store is one of about 50 in the U.S. that Best Buy has converted this year as it seeks to turn itself around amid stiff competition from the likes of Amazon and Walmart. More conversions are planned next year. The turnaround plan has also involved closing some stores, including the one in Cosner's Corner, and opening more smaller Best Buy Mobile stores.

Best Buy officials won't say what metrics they used to evaluate which stores to convert to the new concept. Several other Best Buy stores in Northern Virginia have been converted. The one in Stafford Marketplace has not.

Bill Freehling: 540/374-5405

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.