Looking for a holiday gift? Come on in. Relax. Take a seat in the leather chair.

Welcome to today’s electronics store, a place that is now a little like entering a playground crossed with a cocktail lounge, where playing with the goodies is paramount and staff members are trained to act like laid-back tour guides.

The new vision of electronics retailing was on display last week at a spacious new Verizon Wireless store in a mall in Puyallup, Washington, outside Seattle. An employee used an app on a smartphone to pilot a toy drone. Music thumped from an array of wireless speakers. And another employee coached a couple perched on stools about using their smartphones.

Brian Garduno, a customer reclining in a red leather chair, likened the old Verizon store in the same mall to “being in a train car". As he waited in a red leather chair while a Verizon clerk prepared a new Samsung smartphone and watch, Garduno, a freight manager, praised the new store’s colourful décor and pronounced the customer service “about 99% better" than at the old one.

Established electronics retailers such as Verizon have gone to great lengths in recent months to overhaul their stores. And the heavyweights behind many of the devices—the Microsofts, Googles and Intels—have moved to open retail stores of their own, some temporary, some permanent. In some cases, the brands are creating upscale enclaves for their products within the jumble of megastores.

Behind all the investments in retailing is one of the technology industry’s favourite buzzwords: “user experience". It reflects a belief that companies need to obsess not only over details of product design but also on the environment in which the products are presented to the public. Apple learned this years ago, creating retail outlets—now totalling more than 400—that are meant to be high-traffic emporiums of cool.

But they also reflect the growing shakiness of the big-box electronics stores in the face of searing price competition from Amazon and mass market retailers. Some, like Circuit City, the Good Guys and CompUSA, have vanished, while the biggest specialty retailer in the category, Best Buy, has been on rocky footing.

“If you’re Microsoft and Samsung, you think, I used to have thousands of retail locations, and now I’m down to Best Buy," said Fiona Dias, the former chief marketing officer at Circuit City who is now chief strategy officer at ShopRunner, an online shopping service. “What am I going to do in the future to show off my products?"

There is no wackier illustration of the lengths to which technology companies will go to create special sanctuaries for their products than the mysterious barges Google is building in ports in San Francisco Bay and Portland, Maine. Construction crews are stacking shipping containers, four stories tall, on top of the barges. Regulators, including the Coast Guard, have expressed concerns about the barges and are examining them.

“While we have explored many ideas in the past around the barges, our current plan, as we’ve stated before, is to use them as an interactive space where people can learn about new technology," the company said in a statement.

Google has not said which technologies those will be, or even if it will actually sell anything on the barges. It’s a safe bet one device will be Glass, its Internet-connected eyewear. As it prepares to sell Glass more broadly next year, Google has been trying to figure out how to present the technology to the public in a way that resembles the intimate, hand-holding sessions it has conducted with early adopters of the eyewear.

“If anybody is a really successful branded manufacturer, the best way to showcase your products is to own your own real estate where you’re selling it," said Sucharita Mulpuru-Kodali, an analyst at Forrester Research.

The same idea is at work, on a smaller scale, in the pop-up shops that technology companies have opened this holiday season. Intel, the chip maker, has temporary stores in retail spaces in New York, Chicago and Venice, California. Store employees rearrange the spaces three times a day to showcase different activities—in the morning, for example, coffee is served at breakfast tables with devices showing newspapers.

Kevin Sellers, vice-president for creative services at Intel, said a big reason for the pop-up shops was to show off the capabilities of new “two in one" Windows 8 devices using Intel chips that combine the touch screens of tablets with the keyboard-centred design of laptops. The devices in the Intel shops are not tethered to desks with security cables as they are in Best Buy stores, giving people a better sense of how light they are.

Intel decided it could not simply rely on traditional retailers to help spread the word about the category-blurring products. “If we just go back to the old format of displaying, selling and describing, it may not stick," Sellers said.

Google, too, has its own seasonal pop-up shops, called Winter Wonderlabs, in six metropolitan areas, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Customers can use and order devices like the Nexus 7 tablet and afterward film slow-motion videos of themselves in life-size snow globes.

Stores from electronics brands are not an entirely new concept. Bose and Sony have operated their own stores for years. Gateway, the computer maker, also had its own chain of stores, which it eventually shut down.

And while Apple’s stores have been a hit, it is unclear how much appetite shoppers have for the new stores and chic branding. Beats by Dr. Dre, the headphone and audio maker, has proceeded cautiously in retailing, opening a single store, in New York. John MacFarlane, the chief executive of Sonos, which makes wireless speaker products that have a cult following, said his company might experiment with stores in the future.

He said one concern was whether customers wanted a Sonos-only store, describing his fear as: “You present your best side, but no one is there."

No technology company in recent years has pushed harder than Microsoft to increase its direct presence in retailing. The company now operates 81 retail stores, 31 of which are temporary. Its permanent locations borrow heavily from the open layout of Apple’s stores and its ranks of cheery, helpful sales associates, though Microsoft’s stores rarely seem to have the same level of foot traffic as those of its more established competitor.

Microsoft and Samsung have also tried to improve their presence inside Best Buy, cutting deals to open mini shops devoted to their products inside hundreds of the retailer’s much larger stores. The Microsoft stores inside Best Buys, for instance, have spacious tables where computers and tablets are spread out to give customers room to play with them, along with sales associates who receive additional training to increase their fluency in the products.

“In the past you would walk in and see PCs crammed next to each other with an inch of space next to them, with advertising and marketing pinned to the devices," said Jeremy Dale, a corporate vice-president at Microsoft. “They were getting in the way of enabling consumers to make a choice."

Claire Cain Miller in San Francisco contributed to this story.

©2013/The New York Times