Microsoft takes aim at Apple with store
New megamall shop debuts Nov. 6, across the hall from rival
/ Pioneer Press
The opening of another local retail store for tech shoppers Nov. 6 will have familiar elements: Grinning employees in colorful T-shirts high-fiving their first customers; cheering and chanting in the final seconds before the doors open; a minimalist and stylish environment intended to focus attention on personal computers and handheld electronic devices.
This won’t be an Apple store, though. It will be a Microsoft store, debuting at the Mall of America with take-no-prisoners bravado: It will be directly across from Apple’s longtime megamall store and is mimicking many of its rival’s retail moves.
Microsoft already has opened four retail stores and will debut a fifth in the Chicago area just before the Mall of America unveiling next month. While this puts the company well behind Apple, which has a worldwide network of 318 stores — including five in the Twin Cities — Microsoft’s megamall store will be significantly larger than its nearby competitor. At 8,600 total square feet (with about 5,210 square feet of public space), the about-twice-as-wide Microsoft store will be impossible to ignore.
When scouting locations for new stores, "we hold out for ones that are highly trafficked and of a certain size," said Mika Krammer, general manager of merchandising, marketing and experiences for Microsoft stores.
When the space formerly occupied by Baby Gap and Gap Kids stores became available, Krammer said, "we snatched it."
Microsoft’s proximity to its apple competitor is no accident, said Jeff Green, Phoenix-based president of the Jeff Green Partners retail consultancy. The company intends to siphon off some of the foot traffic from Apple stores, which had 75 million visitors during the last fiscal quarter."It’s a great move that will generate cross-shopping," Green noted. "This is better for Microsoft than it is for Apple. Sometimes you want to be directly across from your competition."
Shawn King isn’t so sure. The Portland, Ore.-based host of the "Your Mac Life" Internet-audio program said Microsoft needs such stores, which are overdue. But he adds that positioning any of these close to Apple stores "will invite direct comparisons," which, he says, Microsoft doesn’t want.
"Why challenge yourself that way?" he said.
Microsoft does have quite a bit to show off, with products that Apple can’t match in some cases. Its popular Xbox 360 game console will be on prominent display at the Mall of America store and at the ideal time: Its much-ballyhooed motion-sensing Kinect add-on gear, which transforms the human body into an Xbox game controller, is being released early next month.
Microsoft next month also is rolling out Windows Phone 7, a flashy new mobile-phone operating system loaded onto advanced smartphones that will get prominent retail-store billing. These will compete directly with Apple’s popular iPhone 4.
The Microsoft store also will show off a wide variety of Windows-based computers, ranging from ultracompact portable netbooks to all-in-one desktop units.
Unique touches will include four of the company’s Surface units, consisting of table-style devices with huge, touch-sensitive surfaces, along with an array of 104 video displays installed on the walls to create a ribbon-like megascreen, or "digital wall."
A software kiosk will let visitors choose from among dozens of popular programs and have these burned onto optical discs. The platters will be tucked into attractive jewel cases with color labels.
Other features seem to be torn from Apple’s playbook. The store will have a bar-style tech-help section, a back-of-the-store theater, personal shoppers, one-on-one workshops and community events for young and old.
Krammer doesn’t deny that Microsoft’s stores "have taken best practices from across the retail industry."
But when you "go into the store, there is an energy and a look and feel that is definitely unique," she said. "It’s an opportunity to have a direct relationship with our customers. We want to have a conversation with them."
Those who have visited other Microsoft stores give them mixed reviews.
Greg Kirsch, a Chicago-based retail broker, visited a Denver-area store and found it to be "well laid out" with products organized by category. He thought it was much too big, though. "People tend to get lost in really big stores," he said.
Green visited the store in Scottsdale, Ariz., and said he felt comfortable with its minimalist style. But he, too, found the retail space too expansive. Apple stores in malls tend to be smaller and a bit more intimate, he noted.
Microsoft also has a challenge in selling products such as the desktop Windows 7 and phone-based Windows Phone 7 operating systems that are "hidden from the customer." Devices on display, with the notable exception of the Xbox 360, are made by other companies. Apple makes everything — the hardware as well as the software.
Reach Julio Ojeda-Zapata at 651-228-5467 or on Twitter at @ojezap.