First look: Inside the Microsoft retail store
On October 22, the new Microsoft retail store debuted in the Scottsdale Fashion Square mall in Scottsdale, Arizona. I visited the store a couple of weeks later to get a feel for the in-store experience and address some of the inevitable comparisons to Apple’s successful retail concept. (It is worth noting that there is no Apple store in the Scottsdale Fashion Square mall.)
At first glance
My initial impression of Microsoft’s first brick-and-mortar location was somewhat mixed, but mostly positive. The store does not occupy a prized center court position in the mall, however its placement in the Nordstrom wing is a strong one. Much has been said about the similarities between the Apple stores and the new Microsoft store, and while it is easy to see why those comparisons have been made, they are actually two very different stores.
There are, perhaps inevitably, some obvious similarities, including some remarkably similar design details such as expansive glass frontage and frosted glass company logos. The sleek, minimalistic design aesthetic with very little build-out certainly brings Apple’s iconic store design to mind. The space feels light and airy, and the clean lines and spare design serve as a backdrop to showcase the real star of the show: the products.
The first and most obvious thing that hit me when I walked into the store was the overwhelming abundance of Windows 7 iconography previewed throughout the space in multiple kiosks and on most graphics throughout the store. The store opening was timed to coincide with the release of Windows 7 and Microsoft is clearly trying to leverage a unique opportunity to highlight the latest iteration of the operating system.
To my mind, the ubiquitous Windows 7 promotion actually highlighted a concern that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time, but in retrospect I think might accurately be described as a brand identity crisis. The walls are lined with a wide variety of other manufacturers’ products, including a large selection of XBox games and consoles; desktop PCs from multiple companies including HP, Dell, Sony and Acer; an impressive selection of laptops and netbooks; and various PDAs from multiple carriers including Verizon, AT&T and Sprint.
On the surface, everything seemed great. What I could not quite resolve, however, was the nagging feeling that Microsoft’s retail initiative faces an underlying structural obstacle that Apple does not: the challenge of clearly defining the Microsoft brand. So much of Microsoft’s product line is hidden from many customers. Operating systems are not as memorable or as compelling or as instantly recognizable as gadgets and machines. In contrast to the iconic iPhone and Mac computing products in an Apple store, the Sony, Dell, HP and other brand names represented in the Microsoft store cannot help but water down the physical presence of the Microsoft brand.
The hands-on accessibility of the various Microsoft products is a familiar and welcome concept, and while it is hard not to see a parallel between Microsoft’s in-store Answer Desk and Apple’s Genius program, the abundance of readily available insight and assistance from store employees is a great touch. In fact, there were more store employees than there were customers during my visit. Strangely, although the mall was packed at the time, the store itself was not. Business seemed relatively brisk, but it may be a potentially worrying sign that Microsoft’s flagship location did not appear to be maintaining its retail momentum a few weeks after opening its doors.
The expansive dimensions of the store — at 9,000 square feet — seemed to be a bit higher than is ideal. Microsoft might want to give some thought to reducing that retail footprint for future locations. Apple’s retail concept went through a similar process, adjusting the average size of the space from what was initially an approximately 6,000-square-foot retail prototype down to what is now typically a 3,500-square-foot design. A more compact layout reduces wasted space and, perhaps most importantly, helps make the store look busy, creating an all-important sense of energy and activity. For a brand and a retail concept that trades on dynamism and actively engaging the consumer, creating that vibe is essential.
Some minor tweaks in layout and design would help as well. Conceptually, the integration of the Answer Desk and point-of-sale activity in one space should be efficient. However, in my actual experience, it seemed to cause some backup and confusion. Streamlining this potentially helpful feature would be a welcome change.
The hands-on experience
There has been an enormous amount of hype regarding the new Microsoft store’s headline innovation: gaming kiosks. These are designed to allow customers the luxury of browsing through a large catalog of PC games and have a hard copy of their selection (including box art and game manual) printed while in the store in less than five minutes.
The potential for such a concept is obvious and exciting. Unfortunately, my own game-printing kiosk experience did not run as smoothly as one would hope. I was led to the kiosk by a store employee who told me that currently, there are only 440 titles to choose from; a significantly lower figure than the advertised 2,000+ titles. The employee noted that eventually the full catalog of titles will be available, but he was not sure when.
The kiosk and related screens were easy to follow and the ordering process for my choice — “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” — was straightforward and intuitive. Once ordered, however, things got complicated. The customer service representative returned from the back of the store to tell me that there was an issue and my game did not print. After a management consultation, it was discovered that if a hard copy of a game is already being sold on the floor, then it does not print the game to a disc electronically. This leads to obvious questions about how employees, and particularly customers, would ever be able to keep track of what was and was not available.
After picking my copy off the shelf, the helpful employee tried to conveniently ring up my purchase with his handheld register; unfortunately, it had died and could not complete my transaction. So, we went to the point-of-sale desk where we found the check-out terminal was also malfunctioning. We then proceeded to another register where, although the transaction was processed, the credit card electronic signature pad was dead.
The game-printing concept is an inspired step forward, and represents a creative application of innovative technology and retail convenience. My enthusiasm for its potential was unavoidably dampened by the muddled and lackluster execution. The rash of technical difficulties is something that Microsoft will need to address — quickly. As a PC user myself, I am sensitive to the notion that Microsoft struggles somewhat with glitches and bugs. New versions of Windows are often buggy when first rolled out. The last thing Microsoft wants is to have that stereotype reinforced in its retail outlets.
Looking ahead to success
It would be a mistake to draw any overbroad conclusions from this one experience. While there were some noteworthy hiccups in my first Microsoft retail store visit, the enthusiastic customer service, sleek contemporary design and potentially game-changing game-printing kiosks all point to a concept with some long-term potential. This first visit certainly won’t be my last. Along with some minor store layout adjustments and the correction of a few technical glitches, Microsoft’s ability to drive customers to its retail venues will likely depend on its ability to establish a more unified brand space in the marketplace.
Jeff Green is the president and CEO of Jeff Green Partners. His company provides strategic consultation to retailers and retail developers nationwide on all phases of shopping center feasibility, redevelopment, expansions, site feasibility, customer profiling and sales forecasting.