Curious Rat

My Microsoft Store Experience

A new Microsoft Store opened up at the mall near my house [1]{: #fnref:1 .footnote} and I decided to swing by to see how different (and how similar) the experience was compared to that of Apple’s own retail establishments.

First things first, aside from a small cluster of teenagers watching their friends play with the Kinect near the entrance [2]{: #fnref:2 .footnote}, the store was practically empty. A few kids were playing games on the PCs to one side, one person was browsing the Windows Phone 8 devices near the front, and a few people were in the most interesting room in the shop: a small movie theater with an XBox Kinect hooked up to an enormous screen.

To the right of that room was a corner devoted entirely to the Xbox and gaming, which should’ve been filled with kids trying to play the latest Call of Duty or racing game, but the whole area was barren. Controllers were neatly arranged on a tall green table, waiting for gamers who would never come. I visited the store on a Sunday afternoon and the mall was jam-packed with shoppers. If someone had tried to estimate the number of mall patrons that day based on the Microsoft Store’s attendance, my guess is he’d come up with a number close to what one would find on an average Wednesday morning.

I got the sense the other patrons were only in there to see what the Microsoft Store offered that the Apple Store didn’t. I didn’t see anyone with the intention of buying anything. The other employees were answering questions and asking if people needed help, but I didn’t see a single transaction occur. Contrast that with the Apple Store and within one minute of stepping foot inside, you’re liable to see at least three simultaneous transactions taking place.

Desktop and laptop PCs from a wide variety of hardware manufacturers were arranged on the wooden tables with paper placards in Lucite next to them. Every machine in the store was running some version of Windows 7. The only device I could find running Windows 8 was a Samsung tablet near the register/“Tech” bar - their “Geniuses” are called “Techs” - and it was running full-blown Windows 8, not the tablet-specific RT version.

A friendly gentleman immediately approached me and asked if I’d used Windows 8 before. I told him I’d used it briefly, but not on a tablet, and he proceeded to explain the various gestures and interface items to me. Unlike the employees one blogger at The Verge talked to, this one knew the differences between Windows 8 Pro and Windows 8 RT. He clearly identified the omitted features and apps from the RT version and how I wouldn’t be able to run legacy apps on a Surface Tablet if I chose to buy one. It’s obvious that Microsoft isn’t training all of its employees equally, but that’s not to say they’re entirely inept.

The employees were generally friendly and welcoming and, more importantly, seemed to really stand behind Microsoft and the Windows brand. They didn’t sound like Mac users who couldn’t get seasonal jobs at the Apple Store at the opposite end of the mall. These were guys (and almost all the employees were guys) who honestly enjoyed using Windows and I can appreciate that. What’s more, they didn’t talk to me like I was some Luddite who should’ve known the difference between a shell and a kernel. The guy helping me was not condescending and I gave no hint that I was someone who covered tech on a daily basis. I didn’t mention my site, nor my podcast - I was just some ordinary customer there to look at Windows 8 on this Samsung tablet.

Speaking of the tablet, I should say that the Metro experience is fantastic. It’s responsive and fun and well-designed. However, once you bounce out to the legacy desktop - “normal” Windows - the touch functionality goes straight to Hell. Other than the new Start screen and RT-specific apps, nearly nothing of Windows 8 is finger-friendly. The touch targets are too small to hit with a finger tip, so you’re expected to haul around a keyboard and mouse with you wherever you go.

Additionally, if the Pro Surface tablets are anything like the Samsung tablet I played with, expect to get quite a workout from reading, or watching movies, or just carrying the device around. The widescreen display and thick casing make it too heavy to hold for long periods of time. Plus, there was fan noise. People can complain all they want about the new iPad’s added thickness and weight, but they should try using this thing first.

When I was finished using the Samsung Spruce Goose, the employee asked if I wanted to pre-order a Surface tablet. I told him no, but I didn’t mention anything about my iPhone or my Mac. He told me that people were able to pre-order in-store for pickup on the 26th, which seemed like a great idea and something I wish Apple did for launch days. From what I know about Apple products, you either get in line like everyone else, or you wait for your package to arrive at your house - you can’t pre-order online and then pick up your item on launch day in-store.

Microsoft has built itself a great retail brand, which isn’t surprising since you could swap out the signage and products with Apple equivalents and have a Microsoft Store converted into an Apple Store in a day. It’s obvious Microsoft drew its inspiration from its competitor. Unfortunately, imitating the look is one thing - bringing in the same crowds as the Apple Store is another.

I can see why Microsoft is building its own hardware. It’s difficult to sell people a computer if every computer is different and comes with different bloatware installed. Microsoft’s own products shouldn’t have that problem and the experience will be much better for customers in the long term. PCs and tablets can be brought in for service to one location (as sparse as those locations might be) as opposed to dealing with two or more companies based on the types of troubles being encountered.

Companies such as Apple and Microsoft are right to offer targeted, brand-specific retail experiences to their customers. Sony has tried and there is a Sony Style store at another mall near my house [3]{: #fnref:3 .footnote}, but it’s almost entirely sales-based. There is no service area of which to speak for Sony products there.

Not all companies can pull this off. Gateway tried and failed. Dell did, too. Best Buy tries to offer a one stop shop solution for consumer electronics, but the results are iffy at best. The question then is: Can Microsoft sustain a focused retail presence in Apple’s wake?

I hope so. If nothing else, it provides competition for Apple to keep its retail store quality high. And customers would be better served demoing Microsoft products with official Microsoft employees nearby to answer questions and provide assistance. But based on what I saw this weekend - one of many weekends leading up to Christmas when malls will be chock full of high-energy shoppers looking for the perfect gifts for their loved ones - Microsoft needs to do more to pull people in. Maybe the Surface will be that draw, or perhaps the next Xbox, but as great as my experience at the Microsoft Store was, I didn’t see anything that would’ve made me give up my Mac and iPad for a Windows 8 device.

Why? Because I’m getting the same type of treatment at the Apple Store. What is Microsoft offering in its retail establishments that Apple is not? What gives Microsoft the edge? Is it the video games? Is it the variety of hardware manufacturers and styles (or is that a detriment like it is on Android)? Is it the one-on-one personal service? The company has done very little in pushing the benefits of its retail stores to consumers. No one knows why they should be choosing a Microsoft Store over an Apple Store. People approach them hesitatntly, like they're curiosities, and that might be because they don't know what to expect.

I think the main thing keeping customers out these shops is that Microsoft doesn’t sell a compelling iPad alternative (yet). The company doesn’t have to worry about convincing existing Windows users to upgrade their hardware, but it has to give iPad users a reason to switch and unless the Surface is a knockout for both pundits and customers, I just don’t see the Microsoft Store being anything more than one big demo room for the Kinect.

The customer service is great, but people don’t eat at a restaurant because of the waitstaff - they eat there because they like the food.

  1. There must be a state mandate stating no block in New Jersey can be without a mall every six feet.  ↩{: .reversefootnote}

  2. {: #fn:2} A clear ploy to not only get people into the store, but focus them at the front to draw more customers in - think big ticket slot machines near the front of the casino.  ↩{: .reversefootnote}

  3. {: #fn:3} Seriously, this place is just one giant mall.  ↩{: .reversefootnote}