Are mini-boxes the next big thing? (Or are you a human lab rat?)

Average Americans aren't the only ones paring back. Big boxes are taking a mini-break, opening smaller concept stores and testing new formats.

The New York Times has a story about large retailers doing just that. OfficeMax has 2,000 sq. ft. convenience size stores called Ink Paper Scissors, while RadioShack and Best Buy both have mobile phone concepts up and running. Even Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe's are tinkering with the standard store, going from mammoth to slightly less so.

In retail, everything is cyclical. Small stores turn into big stores, which turn into giant boxes. When those get too big for their own profitability and available real estate, or management senses push back from overwhelmed shoppers, little tests start popping up in some pretty odd places.A crummy economy is great time for smart retailers to experiment and expand. Real estate is readily available and landlords willing to negotiate. And while the rest of the business world is focused on survival, companies get to fly under the radar and test out some things they would prefer to keep private.

Test concepts are opening all the time, but it's especially important during a recession. According to Scott Krugman, VP of industry relations for the National Retail Federation, when things turn around, they do it fast. "The last thing you want to do is come out of it irrelevant," he says.

New initiatives get a lot of attention, but not much gets said about the ones that don't make it. Anyone shop at the Incredible Universe lately? How about Sears Essentials or the Great Indoors?

But experimental formats yield some pretty good ideas that get incorporated into the entire store base. It can be hard to tell if that new corner store is a test concept, but odds are good even a very distracted shopper can sense something is different. See something you like? Make a point of telling someone. The clerk or manager will pass the comment along to headquarters. Compliments go far and big chains that don't normally excel at customer service, can use what they learn in these smaller, more personable stores and apply it elsewhere.

Besides, we won't always be in a recession. Right now, everyone is focused on price but someday, hopefully soon, the in store experience will matter again.
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