With Apple's retail stores being a driving force behind the company's massive growth over the past decade, can Microsoft emulate the same results with their own retail stores?
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Microsoft retail stores, a familiar but forgettable experience

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As I outlined in my previous piece, I recently visited an Apple retail store at the St. Louis Galleria mall. It was a good experience. This particular mall does house another retail store for another tech giant. It was a mixed experience.

In the telling of this, I have tried my best to remove my Apple bias (lets face it, I have one), and report strictly what I saw. That said, what I saw was kind of somber. First you’re struck with the façade of the store. Not bad, really. Clean logo that is all the rage these days. Plenty of what looked like white acrylic for the entrance. From there, things turn into a mishmash of retail styles.

It is as if a Microsoft store can not decide if it wants to be a Verizon store, a Best Buy or an Apple Store. It has tables with seating inviting someone to come in and tinker for a while, flashy presentation along the walls, all dressed up in a way similar to how Apple would handle it. But, something is just a little off.

It is a nice store, at least in regards to aesthetics and layout. I would say that is mostly because they copied Apple’s lead, and Apple had already done all of the hard work for them in developing this kind of retail experience. That is the whole issue, and it is impossible to avoid discussing it–these are meant to be Apple stores that happen to sell Microsoft products. From the use of materials, to the floor plan, to the brightly colored team member shirts, no idea has not been copied. It feels like these things were copied for the sake of copying them, not understanding the underlying decision that was made by Apple in the first place.

From what I saw this wholesale lift of ideas is not working as well as I would imagine Microsoft would like it to. As I was walking into the store I overheard a gentleman state “You’ve got to be kidding me, Microsoft has a store? And it looks just like…” His voice tapered away as I entered. You can guess as well as I how that sentenced ended. I was greeted by a lady in a green shirt (the whole staff was wearing green that day), who, no kidding, had been sitting at one of the display tables with her head in her hand seconds prior. She was bored and you could tell it. Just coming from the Apple store minutes prior, I can guarantee no one there was lethargic.

Everything in the store, including the staff, was nice. The products they were showing off, for the most part, were the flagship devices from Microsoft’s OEM partners. Everything just felt like a high-class attempt to pull off something that was being done correctly just a short walk away in the same mall. Then again, even that was blatant. The Microsoft store, which came after the Apple store in this particular mall (I would wager in all similar instances Apple arrived first), was within line of sight of the Apple store. Instead of luring people away, at least to my mind, it merely reemphasized the attempted “me too.” Others seemed to have the same disinterest. There was only one other customer in the store while I was there.

I’ll wrap up this parable by saying that I wish I could put my finger on what exactly was wrong with the Microsoft store. Every element seemed to be copying Apple’s winning formula, but without the same result. My guess? Products. There just wasn’t the same emphasis on products in the Microsoft store that you see at the Apple store. I mean that in an advertising sense–flashing displays and advertising material seemed to get in the way in the Microsoft store. But even then, I don’t know if it was so far off from what Apple is doing that they should not be seeing similar results. At least in regards to store foot traffic.

Looking at the Apple store, and how well I was treated, and the bustle of activity surrounding me while I was there, and then comparing it to the attempted coolness of an empty Microsoft store just feet away, you just can’t help but feel a little embarrassed for Steve Ballmer these days.

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  • Veronica Secreti

    I couldn’t agree more with your article. Great work!

  • Xennex1170

    Hmm.. I think location and mix of clientele is a big factor here .. To give another perspective, I visited the recently opened Microsoft Store at the Ala Moana shopping center here in Hawaii this past Tuesday after work.. I would say that the number of people at the store was about the same as that in the Apple store just a few units further east on the same level of the mall.

    The first thing I noticed walking in to the MS store was that due to the larger variety of OEMs represented there was greater interaction between the store employees and customers asking questions and playing with the hardware (smartphones, tablets, PCs, Xbox) than observed at the Apple store. There was more observable interactivity at the MS store which could be attributed to the relative newness of the MS store as well as the perceived intuitiveness of the Apple products. Why ask questions if you already think you know what you’re doing. 😀 Also having a few Xboxs with Kinects does encourage physical movement. The client mix seemed to be a good mix of local residents and tourists shopping. The store layout was nice but due to the tables being laid out perpendicular to the side walls it was a bit more difficult to move around (the crowding didn’t help matters). In comparison the Apple store has their tables laid out parallel to the walls with wider aisles allowing easier access. Both styles have their merits.. The Apple store allows quicker entry and exit, the MS store will ‘hold’ you there longer (which may help sales).

    Due to the proximity of both stores to the high-end ’boutique’ stores, it appeared that the Apple store was simply replicating the surrounding boutique experience and giving it a Computer twist. The MS store in comparison seemed on the outside to complement the surrounding stores and on the inside to be closer to a Best Buy, which may have been their goal seeing as how Best Buy has started up a MS Store-in-store concept. This may simply be an attempt to give a consistent style to match that concept. I have noted that there is one big difference in the MS store where there is an area where up to 5 people can interactively have a short lesson conducted for them. I really didn’t get the feel that MS was trying to copy any part of the Apple store apart from having a dedicated store.. Personally it seems to me that hey both are only extrapolating existing retail models to consumer electronics.

    The major difference I think between the stores is the focus.. There is relatively less HW diversity with Apple products which allows them to display their line-up ‘cleanly’.. Also being the only provider of iOS/OS X products, Apple HW has a consistent look. In contrast due to MS having a much more diverse range of products from disparate OEMS to present the store seems to have a bit more ‘congested’ feel.

    To wrap up I think both companies made a great decision to have stores in Ala Moana. As the MS store is relatively new (not quite 2 months yet since opening) I expect there will be some fine tuning. The foot traffic at Ala Moana is incredible year round so I’m positive they’ll both do well here. Just some off-topic trivia, the Cheesecake Factory restaurant in Waikiki is now the chain’s most profitable single restaurant in the US. 😀