Being an early tech adopter meant Vibhu Norby always had the latest gadgets. Before hoverboards were all the rage, the Bay Area engineer had already ordered his own online and envisioned himself whizzing around town doing errands on two wheels.
But as with so many things ordered online, when the hoverboard arrived, it didn’t live up to expectations. It was huge. And heavy. And he realized there was no way he was going to use it. Had he had a chance to see it in person, to test-drive it first, he probably wouldn’t have bought it.
That experience inspired B8ta, a brick-and-mortar location his company opened in Palo Alto last year. Founded by Norby and other alumni from Nest Labs — the Google-owned company best known for Wi-Fi-connected thermostats, smoke detectors and security devices — B8ta is opening two new locations this holiday season, one in Santa Monica Place and another in Seattle.
B8ta serves as a showroom where customers can take tech gadgets for a test-drive. The storefronts focus on gizmos that aren’t sold in traditional retailers and also have a Web-connectivity component, such as drones, thermostats, virtual reality gear, high-tech kitchen appliances and, yes, hoverboards.
“Our main goal is to make retail relevant for consumers, and to be a powerful awareness and marketing tool for tech makers,” said Norby, B8ta’s chief executive. “If you come into our store, most of our products are not things you’d find somewhere else."
Vendors who want to show their gadgets must pay to rent space. After a customer has tried out a product at a B8ta location, he or she can buy from the store or go online and buy directly from the vendor.
In Palo Alto, where B8ta launched last December, cameras tally the amount of time people spend interacting with products, staff members track how many demonstrations they run, and iPads with product information monitor customer engagement. This data is then passed along to vendors to determine whether people are buying the products after seeing it in on the shelf. B8ta and its employees do not take sales commissions.
The San Francisco company raised $19.5 million in venture capital funding and debt financing to expand to Santa Monica and Seattle.
When the Santa Monica location opens, it will be twice the size of the Palo Alto space, Norby said, and will feature a virtual reality room where customers can try on VR gear in an environment created specifically for VR experiences.
“The L.A. tech scene is growing, and Santa Monica was absolutely the ideal spot,” Norby said. "It’s a heavy tourist destination, and you have major tech campuses there like Google and Snapchat."
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