Microsoft Retail Stores a Dubious Idea

It may be telling that when Apple decided to get into retail stores, it hired the vice president of merchandising from Target to run them. Why do Apple stores look so much like Gap stores? Could it be Steve Jobs’ time served on the Gap corporate board?

So, when I read that Microsoft is getting back--yes, they used to have a store in San Francisco--into the retail business, I can’t help but notice they hired someone with 25-years’ experience at Wal-Mart.

I can see it now, “Microsoft! Always low prices!” I will avoid the urge to take more potshots toward Redmond and just remind Microsoft that before Apple even thought of retail stores, I told Microsoft to open a bunch of their own. They were probably wise to not take my advice, but the store I had in mind would be very much like what Apple eventually opened.

Microsoft needs a way to help Windows users make the most of their computers, to learn how to podcast, edit photos, do basic accounting, and all the other tricks customers can learn at the Apple stores. People also need simple technical support and a promise that if you buy a particular system it will do the same things when you get it home that it does in the store.

That need exists, but I am not sure Microsoft can fulfill it.

First, remember that in its space Apple is a monopoly of the sort people used to accuse Microsoft of trying to become. Apple controls its hardware, the operating system that runs on it, and many of the applications. So, when someone arrives at an Apple store, the company has a great deal to sell them, including the handful of third-party applications and peripherals it offers.

Microsoft does not make hardware, has a very complex scheme for selling and pricing its operating systems, and mostly sells applications that, besides the Office suite, have a fair amount ofcompetition.

Apple is a leader is providing technical support, again because if an Apple customer has a problem it’s probably with Apple’s stuff. Lots of Microsoft issues are caused by non-Microsoft software.

If Microsoft offers a “genius bar,” it may be difficult to establish the line between what its geniuses can and cannot work on without either angering customers (more that they do already) or committing to all-day solution sessions.

I am a big supporter of places where people can learn to do cool things with computers, which is how Apple sells them. There needs to be such a place for Windows customers, but Microsoft may not be the best company to do it and the PC companies that tried--think of Gateway’s ill-fated retail experience--have gone down in flames.

Apple opened its stores in response to the implosion of its retail channel--the company simply had no choice but to find a new way to sell its products. All a Microsoft store than do, it it’s to be anything like an Apple store, is create conflicts among its resellers and force Microsoft to pick winners and losers, based on what non-Microsoft products it chooses to sell.

Microsoft could let a hardware company--HP comes to mind--open the stores with lots of Microsoft help and funding. That is probably the best way for Redmond to go into retail storefronts, but it’s unlikely to make Dell and about a zillion other HP and Microsoft competitors happy.

Apple started its retail stores from a point of near collapse and, as a boutique brand with monopoly control, could do great things with them selling its high-margin products.

Microsoft is not near collapse anytime soon and has to be much more sensitive to partner and customer reaction to its retail experiments. Where Apple didn’t really have to care what people thought, Microsoft has to care very much.

Getting into retail is probably not best done on tippy-toes, which is what Microsoft will have to do.

David Coursey had to go into an Apple store this week, sadly to take his beloved MacBook Pro in for repair. Commiserate with him by writing to: david@coursey.com.

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