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Is the HP Store hip enough for Vancouver?

Hewlett-Packard has just opened its first Canadian store, here in Vancouver. But can it make a go of it?

Is HP hip enough for Vancouver?

The venerable American technology company recently opened its first Canadian store at the corner of Alberni and Bute, where the West End meets downtown. In doing so, Hewlett-Packard follows the path first trodden by the Sony Style store on Granville and the Apple Store in the Pacific Centre.

The store was opened with appropriate fanfare in the form of an invitation-only party the night before the store opening at a trendy Gastown eatery, emceed by man-about-town Fred Lee, eardrum-bursting conversation-stopping music supplied by a DJ flown in from Toronto, fancy appetizers, lots of free wine and beer, and a guest appearance by ex-hockey player Trevor Linden.

But can a company best known for scientific calculators and printer cartridges sustain a store of its own? The store itself has mice, printers, desktop and laptop computers and cameras for sale (as well as calculators and printer cartridges, of course). I dropped by the day after it opened and the crowds were healthy, if not as large and frenzied as those at the Apple Store. Still, it was the pre-Christmas period so it’s an open question whether interest will drop off in the New Year.

HP is betting it won’t. “Vancouver is the first city in Canada where an HP Store will open its doors,” says Chris Fudge, HP Canada’s Vice President, Consumer Business. “We really want to provide a new shopping choice for our customers where they can experience the latest HP technology, talk to our knowledgeable staff and have some fun in an interactive environment with something for everyone in the entire family.”

My gut feeling is that HP won’t be able to pull it off. These days electronic gadgets are a commodity. It’s hard to differentiate one printer or digital camera from another, and shoppers, I feel, are more likely to buy online or through stores like Future Shop, Best Buy and London Drugs that offer a number of competing brands. Why go out of your way to a small store on the edge of downtown Vancouver to buy a printer or Windows OS laptop? Apple and (to a lesser and perhaps lessening extent) Sony manage it because they’ve established a cachet around their brands, but HP, though it makes good solid products, has not.

Two things struck me as symptomatic of HP’s problem. The first was the presence of Trevor Linden at both the opening party and in the store on opening day. Bringing out sports figures to sign autographs at store openings betrays a lack of imagination and a weak corporate brand. What does a retired hockey player have to do with electronics? I can’t imagine Steve Jobs sanctioning the dilution of that brand by having an athlete signing autographs at an Apple Store -- now if it were iconic Apple designer Jonathan Ive signing iPads, I'd go for it -- but not an athlete who has nothing to do with the product.

The second warning sign was the presence on the street outside the store of a General Motors Denali SUV “equipped with the hottest HP products including multiple Palm Pre, the HP Slate, ENVY and Paviliondv7”, according to an HP media release. GMC? Palm? So last century. Vancouverites would probably have been more impressed by a Jorg & Olif bicycle equipped with an iPad and an Android smartphone rather than a gas-guzzling SUV.

But I could be wrong. Maybe the HP Store will be a success. You can judge for yourself. The store is located at 1162 Alberni, just around the corner from the new BC Liquor store at Alberni and Bute. Its web address is hpstore.ca.

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