Welcome to the Microsoft Store

Three years ago, shortly after Microsoft announced that it would launch its own retail stores, Farhad Manjoo offered the company some unsolicited advice: Copy Apple “relentlessly, unabashedly, and completely.” At the time, Microsoft was still the world’s largest technology company. While it had clearly lost its mid-‘90s mojo, it still seemed unlikely that it would slip behind Steve Jobs’ juggernaut in revenue, profit, or market value. (Apple has since eclipsed Microsoft in all three metrics.) Yet it was clear even then that Apple’s stores were a key factor in its miraculous growth, and Microsoft badly needed a similar retail venture.

Jobs built stores because he believed the Web and big-box warehouses didn’t do enough to show off Apple’s products. Apple was misunderstood, and the stores were a way to reclaim its brand. In time, Apple’s shiny storefronts came to serve three purposes. They were places of worship for the initiated, a gateway toward devotion for newbies, and, for everyone, a place to find out what the hell’s wrong with your iMac. This three-tiered strategy proved enormously profitable. Today, Apple’s stores are by far the most successful American retail operation per square foot of store space.

Now, it’s Microsoft that’s the misunderstood tech company. A number of its recent products have been excellent—I’m thinking of Windows 7, Windows Phone, perhaps Windows 8, and the amazing Xbox 360 and the Kinect—but they usually get short shrift in the tech press. What Microsoft needed was a retail shrine, and what better way to build one than to look to the master?

That’s exactly what Microsoft has done. And the results are beautiful. Last week, Farhad visited the company’s new store at the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto, Calif. This is Microsoft’s 15th retail store, and this week it will open its 16th in Austin, Texas. Over the next few months, Microsoft plans to open four more locations across the country. If you live in an upscale area with a high-traffic, upper-middle-class mall, there’s a good chance you’ll find a Microsoft store nearby, and I encourage you to visit one.

If there isn’t one near you, do the next best thing: Go to an Apple store and imagine that the display tables are made of dark rather than bleached wood, and that the phones and computers that sit atop them bear the Windows logo rather than the Apple one. Everything else—lots of friendly employees wearing colored T-shirts, a tech-support area in the back (call it the Answer Desk, not the Genius Bar), the ability to buy stuff from any employee through a roving point-of-sale system—is ripped from Apple’s playbook. At some malls, Microsoft has even chosen to highlight these similarities through proximity. In Palo Alto, the new Microsoft store is just one door down from the Apple store. At the Valley Fair center in Santa Clara, Calif., the two stores are right across the hall from one another.

A cynic would say Microsoft is pathetically sniffing Apple’s fumes, perhaps hoping that unsophisticated customers looking for Macbook Airs wander into the wrong store and emerge with Windows 7 ultrabooks. But Farhad is no cynic. It’s easy to rib Microsoft for copying Apple, and seeing the two stores side by side does make Team Redmond look a bit pathetic. But in business, losing face isn’t as important as making money. And after visiting a couple Microsoft stores, I’m convinced they’ll help Microsoft bring in more cash.

For one thing, these shops are fun. Farhad walked into the Palo Alto store at around lunchtime last Friday—the day after its grand opening—and it was bustling, just as busy as the Apple store a couple doors down. The star of the Microsoft store is the Xbox. There are several gaming stations laid out across the space, including one in a mock living room that’s hooked up to a Kinect controller. The consoles are always mobbed by kids, and because the Kinect is set up next to the front window, there’s always a show for passers-by. It’s an inviting spectacle—kids in odd poses having fun—and should be just as big a draw as cardboard cutouts of the new iPad.

When you do walk in, you’re greeted by great products. Windows has always had to bear the burden of its own success—the operating system is so ubiquitous that it often ends up on inferior hardware put out by cut-rate computer makers. You won’t see that at the Microsoft store. The shops carry only the best computers and phones, and they’ve all been mercifully scrubbed of crapware. When you buy a PC at the Microsoft store, you’ll have good reason to believe it will work really well. And if it doesn’t, bring it back and ask for help. Like the Apple store, the Microsoft store will offer you free tech support—even for Microsoft stuff that you didn’t buy there, and even for Microsoft software that’s running on your Mac. You can pay for extra services, too, including virus removal ($99) or one-on-one training ($49 per hour).

Microsoft hasn’t disclosed any financial information about its retail operation, so it’s impossible to know if the stores are making money. But measuring the Microsoft store according to sales volume would be unfair. There are lots of places to buy Microsoft products, so it’s possible that people are browsing the stores to learn about Microsoft’s latest stuff and buying elsewhere. In that case, you could consider the stores successful as showrooms even if nobody walks out with a box tucked beneath their arm.

In Palo Alto, Farhad saw lots of people crowded around displays for the Windows Phone. Regular readers know that he is over the moon about Microsoft’s mobile OS—He thinks it’s the best-designed, most user-friendly phone operating system on the market. Windows Phone’s only problem is that it is made by Microsoft, a company that nobody thinks is on the cutting edge. The phone is hampered by a bad rap, and the retail stores are a brilliant way to repair that image—even if another company had the idea first.

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