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Lindley Estes is a business writer for The Free Lance-Star and Fredericksburg.com. This blog is on Fredericksburg-area business. Send an e-mail to Lindley Estes.

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Retailers experimenting with new concepts at Central Park

The Best Buy store in Central Park now has a more open layout and modern feel. It’s among several stores in Central Park that are serving as testing grounds for the corporate parent. Photo by Dave Ellis.

Central Park is serving as a test kitchen of sorts for at least three large U.S. retailers.

Barnes & Noble, Christmas Tree Shops and Best Buy are testing out new concepts at their stores in the Fredericksburg shopping center. Shoppers’ reactions will help shape the retailers’ future strategies.

The Barnes & Noble store that opened Wednesday in the former Borders space across from Target is the first that the book-focused retailer has opened in more than two years. The store’s modern design and layout are part of a new concept for the Barnes & Noble chain, said store manager Becky Anderson.

Four-year-old Sophia Stewart examines a Nook at the Barnes & Noble in Central Park. The e-reader and children’s section are emphasized at the store. Photo by Bob Martin.

Barnes & Noble’s e-reader and tablet brand, the Nook, is emphasized at the store, demonstrating the company’s efforts to expand its digital business to compete with Amazon.com and others. There is a large children’s books and toys section, and many kid-focused book readings and other interactive events are planned. The cafe sells Starbucks coffee and Cheesecake Factory desserts.

The store has an open layout and low shelves, which makes it easy to get a good feel for the entire selection when first walking through the glass doors. Large flat-screen televisions promote new books and hot-sellers. About 80 people work at the new store, and more people will be hired.

Not far away from the Barnes & Noble store, workers are finishing up construction to transform the former Shoppers Food space into the new home of two retailers expected to open in the next few weeks: Buy Buy Baby and And That.

Christmas Tree Shops, which itself is a subsidiary of Bed Bath & Beyond, will own and operate the And That store. The merchandise and layout will be similar to what is found at Christmas Tree Shops. Just the name will be different.

Christmas Tree Shops sells a constantly changing array of bargain-priced items including home furnishings, housewares, clothing and gifts. But people outside the company’s core New England market have had some confusion about the brand because of its seasonal-sounding name, said spokeswoman Michele Watkins.

A sign along Carl D. Silver Parkway promotes the two new stores opening soon at the former Shoppers Food space.

As a result the company decided to try out the new name at the Central Park store. Watkins said the name comes from the fact that many shoppers say they go to Christmas Tree Shops to buy “this and that.” She said the company will make future naming decisions based in part on how Fredericksburg-area residents react to the store.

Best Buy has been in Central Park for more than 15 years, but over the past five weeks construction crews have transformed the store to give it an entirely new feel. The results will be shown off Saturday with a “grand re-opening” event that will feature Captain America and allow early-birds to get a free breakfast and Best Buy gift cards.

Like at Barnes & Noble, the new store features an open layout, clear directional signs and low shelves that allow shoppers to see the whole store from the front. Skylights have been added, and the emphasis is on wireless devices and customer service. In the middle of the store is a “Solution Central” kiosk where Best Buy workers will help customers trouble-shoot and get the most out of their electronic devices. It’s meant to promote a hands-on, interactive shopping experience.

The store remained opened throughout the transformation, said Michael Setti, a Best Buy manager who oversees the mobile-products section. Workers came at the end of regular business hours and left when the store reopened in the morning.

The Central Park store was one of about 50 in the U.S. that Best Buy has converted this year as it seeks to turn itself around amid stiff competition from the likes of Amazon and Walmart. More conversions are planned next year. The turnaround plan has also involved closing some stores, including the one in Cosner’s Corner, and opening more Best Buy Mobile smaller stores.

Best Buy officials won’t say what metrics they used to evaluate which stores to convert over to the new concept. Several other Best Buy stores in Northern Virginia have been converted. The one in Stafford Marketplace has not.

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