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It's Paradise for Browsers With Pen,Pad

December 27, 1985|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN

Need a handblown beer horn? A collection of antique golf balls dating back to 1899?

How about a radar detector or a foot couch?

A2Z: The Best of Everything, located in Newport Center Fashion Island's fashionable new Atrium Court, has them all.

Need a mustache grooming kit?

For "hard-to-find tools & other fine things," Brookstone, in South Coast Plaza, is the place to go.

Brookstone and A2Z are what are known in the retailing world as "high-end" catalogue showrooms. At both stores, shopping carts have been replaced by pen and paper, and a hands-on approach to shopping is encouraged.

Folks stand on a talking scale. They try on a headband magnifier. They pedal an exercycle.

The public seems to have bought the idea hook, line and sinker.

Both stores carry unusual items. (In the hook, line and sinker department, for instance, you're more likely to find an electronic fish-finder than a rod and reel.)

Both are a browser's paradise.

"It's not uncommon for people to spend three or four hours in here," noted Rex Beaver, assistant manager of Brookstone.

No doubt about it, Brookstone shoppers seemed content.

"I love the setup," said Reggie Audibert of Irvine. "Look at this store. The place is full. And all they sell is little knickknacks.

"I get to browse. And play. They've got batteries in everything. Everything turns on and works."

Amy Bohanon of Santa Ana agreed.

"I like it," she said. "Salespeople don't bother you. You can just walk around, and there's no pressure on you or anything. You just write down what you want. And the products are different. They're interesting. You can't get these things anywhere else."

At Brookstone, pens and order blanks are provided. The stock rooms are set up numerically. A metal and pulley conveyor system brings the items up front.

"The system is a lot less confusing, a lot less cluttered, easier in a lot of ways," Beaver said.

"Think about it. At other places, you might start looking at one end of the store, you find five things, you pick them up, put them in a shopping cart and then, wow--here are three other things I'd rather have. At Brookstone, you don't have to figure out where to put all those other things back. You just scratch off the ones you don't want, write in the new ones."

At A2Z, which manager Ray LaCroix describes as "a high-technology store for all ages," customers collect slips of paper containing product descriptions and take them to the register; items appear on a counter behind the registers within moments of the transaction's end.

"The idea is still very new for many people," explained LaCroix, "so there is still some confusion.

"Because they can't actually physically pick up an item and carry it to the register, a lot of people seem to think they have to order everything, that it will be sent to them through the mail like a catalogue. Of course, we explain the system on signs all over the store. When they come up and find out they can get it within minutes, they're very happy."

Brookstone, now owned by Quaker Oats, was begun in 1964 by Pierre deBeaumont, a farmer from Peterborough, N. H., with a small ad in Popular Mechanics magazine. DeBeaumont sent out his first mail order catalogue three years later. There are now 53 retail stores across the country, including four in Los Angeles County.

Although A2Z, a subsidiary of MCA Inc., is less than a year old, there already are six stores, including one in Los Angeles.

Products at A2Z range from a little brush for $1 to a one-million candlepower flashlight at $875; the price range at Brookstone is similar. Both carry office supplies, garden supplies, pet supplies, housewares and games. Telescopes are a hot item this year.

(Indeed, just in case customers get bored waiting for a fellow shopper, Brookstone offers a Halley's Comet Quiz, suspended from the ceiling and featuring such burning questions as, "What famous American writer was born during a visit of Halley's comet and died during its next visit?" The answers--it's Mark Twain in this case--are found at various locations around the store.)

Although tools once represented 85% of the Brookstone inventory, according to Beaver, that figure has dropped to 15%; all merchandise carries an unconditional lifetime guarantee.

The store may specialize in hard-to-find items, "but they're all practical," said Beaver. "I'm comfortable selling these things. If you have the need, they serve the purpose. It's not a hype thing. It's not like a pet rock."

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