Retailers see smaller outlets as the next big thing.

Bigger is not always better. Just ask the biggest retailers in the country — and their customers.

Neng Yang, left, purchases a new phone at the Best Buy Mobile mini-store at Independence, Mo., with her brothers Cheng Yang and John Yang, right.

 Neng Yang, left, purchases a new phone at the Best Buy Mobile mini-store at Independence, Mo., with her brothers Cheng Yang and John Yang, right.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — To Neng Yang, the Best Buy store in Independence, Mo., is just too overwhelming — so much so that she only shops there once a year, at the holidays.

So when she needed a new cellphone, she bypassed the 55,000-square-foot store with its many departments — appliances, big-screen TVs, computers, cameras, car audio, video and music. Instead, she stopped across the street at the Best Buy Mobile store.

The slimmed-down 850-square-foot sister store concentrates only on mobile devices.

“I ask about a thousand questions, and this is more personalized, more one-on-one attention,” said Yang of Blue Springs, Mo.

Yang bought a white Droid Razr, and her brother John Yang picked up a black one.

Bigger is not always better. Just ask the biggest retailers in the country — and their customers.

The recession and the growth of online shopping have conspired to cut chains down to size. One strategy they’ve employed has been to close underperforming stores. But Best Buy and an increasing number of companies are trying another strategy too — going smaller.

Among the retailers testing smaller concepts are Blockbuster, Ann Taylor, Gap, Kohl’s, Lowe’s and Sports Authority. RadioShack even is trying a “store-within-a-store” format in several OfficeMax stores in California.

Lower square footage makes for lower construction and remodeling costs, and that also tends to make them easier to finance. The smaller locations have less overhead costs and can be manned by fewer employees.

The small size also gives the chains more flexibility in locations, allowing them to squeeze into heavily developed urban centers, and compact spaces in airports, college campuses and strip centers. If the location isn’t successful, the chains can close the sites with less financial fallout.

“For a decade it was ‘build it and they will come,’ ” said Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail in New York.

“It’s definitely a correction for retailers as well as restaurants, a direct result of consumers not having as much to spend on the extras. The strategy has to be to reduce your costs to offset less traffic. Usually that means less rent, shrinking retail and restaurants,” Corlett said.

Jeff Green, president of Jeff Green Partners, Phoenix-based real-estate consultants, has long criticized the “bigger is better” movement.

“They think the bigger they are the more exciting they are and that’s not necessarily the case, as Apple has proven,” Green said.

“Consumers like the smaller stores, like to be part of a ‘happening,’ and smaller stores have that feel.”

When retailers like Ann Taylor, Chico’s and the Gap opened larger stores, they didn’t necessarily see an equivalent rise in sales, if any rise at all, that would justify the added expense, Green said.

“Any retailer that is opening larger and larger stores, I question their long-term viability,” Green said. “Costco and Sam’s Club defy that theory. That’s because consumers really perceive them as great values and value trumps the inconvenience of size.”

One of the latest retailers to embrace small stores is Cabela’s. On Feb. 16, the outdoor-equipment and sporting-goods retailer said it would open its first Cabela’s Outpost Store this fall in Union Gap, just south of Yakima; up to three more are planned for next year.

The Outpost stores will be significantly smaller than traditional Cabela’s: about 40,000 square feet compared with, say, the 185,000-square-foot Cabela’s in Lacey, Thurston County.

Cabela’s also has plans to open an 110,000-square-foot store this year at Quil Ceda Village on the Tulalip Tribes Indian reservation. And it will target smaller markets — 250,000 people or less with a high concentration of them already Cabela’s customers.

Best Buy introduced its mobile locations in 2007 and there are about 260 nationwide, including the Independence Best Buy Mobile store, which opened in August. Best Buy has about 1,100 full-size stores.

“The customer wants a different shopping experience. We don’t work on commission, and we carry everybody,” said Kyle Cochran, manager of the Independence store, which is tucked between two specialty stores on the lower level of the Independence Center mall.

Still, consumers who have come to know a brand as a “category killer” might be confused by the new concept.

The Wal-Mart Neighborhood Stores are designed to provide shoppers with a quick, convenient stop for fresh produce, dairy items, and pharmacy products at low prices. The grocery stores are about 29,000 square feet compared with a 142,000-square-foot supercenter.

But some grocery store shoppers still expect to see the large selections of products Wal-Mart is known for.

Carolyn Shaw of Shawnee, Kan., was disappointed in the holiday selection at a Wal-Mart Neighborhood store earlier this month during a morning stop in a snowstorm.

“They didn’t have many Valentine’s items,” Shaw said. “Now I’ll have to go back out this afternoon to a bigger Wal-Mart.”

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