Microsoft Store mirrors popular concept of its rival

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Blink an eye, and the Microsoft Store
could be mistaken for an Apple Store.

The sign over the doorway has no letters, only a Windows
logo instead of an Apple silhouette. Wood bar tables display desktops and
laptops, and Zunes and Windows Mobile phones replace iPods and iPhones. The
walls are painted stark white to showcase the products.

Where Apple store have customer-service areas called
“Genius Bars,” Microsoft’s have “Answer Bars” at the back.
Staff wear Apple-style shirts in primary hues. Staff members may even look
familiar; some were recruited from Apple stores.

“I think it’s pretty cool, but they kind of copied the
Mac store,” said Spencer Doan, 19, who was in the Mission Viejo, Calif.,
store recently playing checkers with a friend on a Microsoft Surface, a
coffee-table touch-screen computer.

Opening retail stores is another move to make the software
giant appear warmer and cuddlier. In October, Microsoft opened the first two —
in Scottsdale and Mission Viejo. The stores are a way to combat the perception
Microsoft is uncool and user-hostile, an image that rival Apple has cannily
crafted in its TV commercials.

To be fair, it’s a game plan other technology retailers are
cribbing. A redesigned T-Mobile USA store in Seattle also features the
equivalent of a Genius Bar.

Microsoft’s new stores capped off a year in which the
company finally started playing serious defense against Apple, to mixed

Last fall, Microsoft launched its “I’m a PC” ads,
showing regular people bragging about their computer to counter Apple’s popular
commercials depicting Microsoft as a stodgy salaryman.

Microsoft also aired laptop-hunter ads attacking Apple’s
high prices, a message that reverberated in a consumer market shaken by an
economic downturn.

Microsoft still has 96 percent of the personal-computer
market, but the company can improve against Apple, CEO Steve Ballmer said at a
shareholder meeting this month in Bellevue, Wash.

On mobile phones, for instance, the company is losing share
against the runaway success of Apple’s iPhone, although Microsoft hopes the
next version of Windows Mobile will be competitive.

A few shoppers at the Apple Store in Seattle’s University Village
last week could not wrap their heads around a Microsoft Store.

“I don’t know what it would sell,” said Jared
Enger, 20, a PC user who recently checked out an iPod Touch at the Apple Store.

The Microsoft stores in Arizona and California carry software
made by Microsoft, software that runs on Microsoft software and hardware that
runs on Microsoft software — computers, laptops, cellphones, Xboxes, Zune music

Shoppers can try out everything, just as in an Apple Store.

The stores also feature an Xbox video-game area where
shoppers can try out games such as “DJ Hero” and “Madden NFL
10.”The Scottsdale store, about 9,000 square feet, recently was offering
$100 to any customer who could beat a store employee at an Xbox game.

Sandwiched between a Juicy Couture and Burberry boutique,
the Microsoft Store there had about 30 customers milling about on a recent
Sunday afternoon.

Microsoft store employees brag about one-ups on Apple.
Instead of the light-up display walls Apple features, Microsoft has more than
100 LCD screens that run across the store walls.

The store hosts free workshops every day. If customers don’t
want to upgrade to Windows 7 at home, they can pay staff at the store $39.99 to
do it for them.

The computers purchased at the store also come without the
extra free software that populates new computers bought at other outlets.


As with Apple’s staff, the employees do not work on
commission, so they have all the time to answer questions from customers who
may end up buying nothing.

The staff members are arguably the friendliest, most helpful
employees Microsoft has ever hired. The Mission Viejo door greeter looks, and
dances around, like Ashlee Simpson.

Another employee, who until recently worked for the Army
National Guard, extols the virtues of Windows 7, then catches himself and says,
“I’m starting to sound like a salesman!”

Microsoft corporate staff is not commenting on its stores.
Apple won’t return calls seeking comments.

“It’s very hard for me to wrap my arms around it
because what is going to differentiate it from other stores selling those same
products” that run on Windows, said Jeff Green, a retail analyst in Mill
Valley, Calif.

“As a way of marketing Windows 7, I thought it was

Green predicts Microsoft will open more stores at a smaller
size than the Scottsdale store to make them feel busier.

He doesn’t think they’ll match the presence Apple has built.

Apple now has 280 stores in 10 countries. The most recent
opened this month on New York’s Upper West Side featuring a glass arched roof
and 200 employees on two stories.

On average, Green said the Apple stores make $4,250 per
square foot, far above the average of $400 to $500 for specialty retailers.

In fiscal 2009, 18 percent of Apple’s sales came through its
retail stores, or $6.6 billion out of $36.5 billion. The company originally
opened their own stores because it felt other retailers were not doing a great
sales job on their product.

Victor Bremson, of Seattle, who was recently browsing at the
U Village Apple store, has bought six Apple computers from the store, and he
loves the one-on-one weekly consulting, which costs $100 a year.

“If I’m working on a project in Keynote, I will come in
once a week,” he said. “Tell me where (else) you can get consulting
for $100 a year.”

He shrugged when asked whether he would go to a Microsoft
Store if one opened near him.

“We’ve been using Macs since the 1980s,” he said.
“Microsoft has been too late coming to the party.”

Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.