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Microsoft Store Mimics - and Enhances - Apple Store Experience

On 22 October 2009, Microsoft opened their very first consumer retail store, in the Scottsdale Fashion Square mall in Scottsdale, Arizona. Although Microsoft has long had a fabled company store at the Redmond, Washington campus, the Microsoft Store is their first attempt at engaging directly with consumers in a Microsoft-controlled retail environment, and obviously an attempt to compete directly with Apple's highly successful stores.

Since the new store is only 20 minutes from my home in Phoenix, I decided I couldn't miss the opportunity to attend the opening of the first Microsoft Store. Since Scottsdale isn't exactly a geek-haven like San Francisco or New York, I arrived right at the 10 AM opening.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. I found a long line snaking through the interior in the mall, full of many of the same sorts of people I encounter in my annual sojourns to the iPhone upgrade line at the Apple Store located 10 minutes away. Judging by the number of iPhones in line, it was likely some of the same individuals.

I didn't know what to expect, but I ended up weaving through the line for about an hour before I finally found myself within sight of the store itself.

I was immediately struck by how similar the design is to the Apple Store. The outside consists of a big glass storefront, with a simple Microsoft logo over the doors. Technically it's the four-color Windows logo (enhanced with a bit of a gradient), and not the main text-based Microsoft logo. Like the Apple Store, there are no words on the exterior itself.


The similarities only increased as I walked through the doors. From the "high fives" from the cheering employees, to the physical layout, it's clear the Microsoft Store is a highly deliberate attempt to mimic the Apple Store experience. The product display tables, positioning of products around the periphery of the store, location of the support and training areas, the employee dress code (simple t-shirts), and nearly every other design element are right out of the Apple Store.

Most products are laid out cleanly on either large tables in a grid pattern on the floor, or around the edges. Products are grouped by type (different categories of laptops or desktops), with peripherals attached, including plenty of Zune audio and video players. Centered in the back is a support area that is nearly identical to a Genius Bar, behind which is a training area with benches. Purchases are made on the floor, with employees using handheld credit card readers. The entire staff is helpful, informed, and friendly, unlike most of the big box retailers that sell Microsoft hardware and software.




I can't express how closely the design follows Apple's lead. The colors, positioning, lighting, and nearly every other aspect matches what Apple has done. If the Microsoft Store fails, Apple could easily buy the location, swap out the products and a few logos, and be up and running in a couple of days.

But I have to admit the Microsoft Store also includes some nice design enhancements. There is a continuous line of large LCD displays on the walls above the products, right where Apple normally places their latest product posters. The displays show a wrap-around outdoor water scene that looks like it might be from the Seattle area. Hand-drawn (at least they look that way) text and images gently fade and float in and out over the product areas they describe, with a few photographic images and videos mixed in.


In the back corner is a section for the Xbox 360, with game stations set up facing the walls where people can try out the latest games. In a cute touch, the games play in the middle of the wrap-around display with a hand-drawn frame of a television around them. The station with the Guitar Hero instruments included headphones so you could play the game despite the noise around you.


The coolest part of the store is the four Microsoft Surface tables mixed in with the product displays. Surface is a multitouch tabletop running a special version of Microsoft Windows designed to let multiple people interact around the display. On one table, people were playing chess, on another they were flying around a version of Virtual Earth, while another had interactive product information. It's hard to describe Surface in words, but it's one of the better ambassadors for Microsoft's technologies.


It's also clear that Microsoft is using the store as an opportunity to change how people connect with their products. The theme from the employees (and the PR representative I talked with) is "Choice, Value, Service." The PCs on display were some of the nicest models I've seen on the market, even the smaller netbooks. All computers in the store come with support and Microsoft Signature, a free service that removes all the "free" antivirus and other PC manufacturer software that cruds up a new PC, and gives customers a pristine installation of Windows 7.

Microsoft is using the store - and others slated to open - as a way to connect directly with their customers, most of whom purchase and interact with Microsoft products through third parties, especially big box retailers and low-cost online outlets. By providing clean systems, in-person support, and knowledgeable (and helpful) sales associates, Microsoft is providing an extremely different experience than most PC users are familiar with.

Still, I can't help but be disturbed in exactly how much the Microsoft Store blatantly replicates the Apple Store experience. The improved service and support are excellent, as is the use of interactive displays, but copying even the physical layout and colors of an Apple Store is disappointing. Rather than creating a distinct, innovative experience, it feels like a Microsoft-branded Apple Store.

Although the Mac and iPhone are my primary computing and communication devices, I do also use and enjoy many Microsoft products, including Windows (on my Macs). While I've switched more than a few friends and family to Macs, there are still many on PCs. From now on I will enthusiastically recommend the Microsoft Store as their best choice when looking for PCs or to test out the latest Microsoft software, and it will be my first stop when I finally convince my wife to let me get an Xbox 360.

 

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Comments about Microsoft Store Mimics - and Enhances - Apple Store Experience
(Comments are closed.)

Microsoft...where have I seen that before?
Scott Rose  2009-10-23 01:17
Why in the hell would you tell people to go support Microsoft or The Microsoft Store when you yourself admit in your article that they don't have an original idea at all. Microsoft is a criminal corporation that steals ideas from others, makes horribly low-quality products (including the Xbox that you are clamoring for), and has illegally violated many national and international laws in order to "compete" (ahem, and I use the term "compete" loosely). You are a technology consultant, and you should not be recommending a company that would violate any human rights that they can get away with in order to make a buck. As a trusted consultant to your friends and family members, Microsoft is not the type of company that you should ever support.. it's the equivalent of shopping at Wal-Mart (walmartmovie.com). If you don't know the full history of every single illegal thing that Microsoft has done and horrible product created in their lifetime, then you should read the roughlydrafted.com blog.
Rich Mogull  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-23 10:48
Scott,

For the record, none of my friends in Microsoft (or Apple) have every made a move on my wallet or violated my human rights.

Microsoft is filled with good, hard working people just like any large company. Yes, they've been nailed on the legal front, but so has Apple and nearly every other large company. I think Microsoft makes many great products, and while it's not my operating system of choice, it is for far more users than are on Macs.
Rick Davis  2009-10-23 05:07
Since Microsoft doesn't actually make their own PC's my question is whose product are you buying? HP, Dell, Acer or some other maker of the month? Will it change at each store or weekly, monthly, yearly? Or will all manufacturers fight for shelf space the way they do in grocery stores? I admit I am a Mac user and will never have a reason to walk into a Microsoft store, I actually doubt that there will ever be one closer to Cincinnati than Scottsdale, so my views wont figure into their success or failure.
Rich Mogull  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-23 07:51
The ones I saw were HP, Dell, and Acer, but it was crowded and I suspect they carried a bunch more. I think it's great they will skim the cream of the crop, then provide the kind of support PC users almost never experience.
George  2009-10-23 05:58
Nice review.

Other than the "personal" experience that must fall in the realm of "Apple elitism" for the vast majority of MS Windows shoppers, I can't help but wonder what MS stores could offer that the average PC shopper wouldn't rather buy for probably cheaper at a Big Box retailer.

This will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Will the big box folks price cut the MS stores? Will MS offer an "upscale" PC at higher prices? Will MS need to charge more in order to maintain the additional overhead thus creating a MS "Tax" (in addition to the usual MS toll).

Or will this all be a money losing venture for MS - because if Apple does that means they will do it too?


"A world without walls --- doesn't need Windows"
Rich Mogull  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-23 07:53
It will be interesting to see how this strategy fares as they expand the stores and challenge the big boxes. I suspect they'll end up having to charge a small premium to include the extra support, but in many ways this is a marketing exercise for MS.

Microsoft realized they need to connect more directly with their customers, and small number of positive interactions in these stores can go a long way.
I'm wondering if Microsoft doesn't hope this will force the big box stores and online sellers to up their game a bit. If they see people willing to actually pay a bit more for a good experience (i.e. the Apple model) then perhaps service from other companies will get better.

Bad Dell/HP stories give Microsoft a black eye even when it isn't their fault.
Chris Pepper  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-23 09:27
Ah, Rich, you're just an Amiga fanboi! Admit it! El Jobso and Kong^H^H^H^HBallmer will destroy you!
Rich Mogull  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-28 09:16
OMG- I *so* wanted an Amiga!!! I went to college with a C-128, and loved all the Commodore stuff. I was all Apple and Commodore back then.
Louis-Jean Teitelbaum  2009-10-24 03:46
> "Still, I can't help but be disturbed in exactly how much the Microsoft Store blatantly replicates the Apple Store experience."

Actually, I expect the Apple Store experience to be reproduced (and, let's hope, enhanced) by many others in the years to come. Microsoft won't be the last to do that, nor should they be.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-26 06:52
That's a good point - when Apple first game out with the in-store theaters, I commented that other types of stores should be doing the same thing. Imagine clothing stores having little fashion shows, or hardware stores having demos of how to use various tools, or... the sky's the limit.

And more important, it turns the shopping experience even more into an entertainment experience, which I'm sure the retail folks think is utterly essential.

(Personally, although I don't mind shopping, I generally keep my entertainment separate from consumer behavior.)
Glenn Fleishman  2009-10-27 20:58
The interesting part will be in replicating the experience, can they replicate the results? Microsoft has the distinct advantage in being able to say the stores aren't about sales, but about marketing, and thus don't have to produce real $ per sq ft.
Rich Mogull  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-28 09:19
I think this is a huge opportunity for Microsoft- it's the first time they can connect directly with their users face to face. Even when they produce the hardware, they've never been able to do that before and have had to rely on the Big Boxes and bundling.

Considering the terrible service and outright chicanery committed by many of those outlets, the MS store is offering an incredibly superior esperience.
David Weintraub  2009-10-25 07:14
Sooner or later, someone will take a PC back to the Microsoft store, and Microsoft is going to say "It's a hardware problem. You need to take it back to Dell/HP/Acer."

At that point, there will be a big difference between the Apple Store experience and Microsoft Store experience. It would be interesting to see how Microsoft handles it.
Rich Mogull  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-28 09:20
Yep- that's the challenge. If they stand behind those boxes as well as Apple does (keeping in mind that without Applecare, you don't get a lot more from Apple after 90 days) that will be a major change for the PC experience.

They do offer extended warranties... which I believe cover hardware. Kind of an Applecare equivalent, but I didn't have time to check the details and see if it offers feature parity.
yischon  2009-10-25 16:42
Any idea how the products in the Microsoft Store (is that the official name?) are priced in relation to the big box retailers?
barryc  2009-10-27 14:09
typical Microsoft, copy something, try and make it your own. Lets just see how they implement it and how that implementation stays "virus free".