Microsoft looks to give Surface sales a pop with pop-up stores

Michael Homnick

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Microsoft is sparing no expense to hype its newest piece of hardware, the Surface RT tablet, which arrived on store shelves on October 26. The company is reportedly spending more than $1 billion on advertising the Surface and its new operating system, Windows 8.

Michael Homnick
This pop-up store in San Francisco’s Westfield Center is one of 34 that Microsoft has opened up around the country.

Microsoft has also extended its retail reach beyond its existing 34 outlets by opening 30 pop-up stores to sell the Surface through the holidays.

The company has a tough hill to climb with its tablet. While anecdotal and empirical research indicate that the Surface is garnering interest from those already familiar with Microsoft, hard numbers aren’t quite as encouraging. A recent poll of 1,200 American adults conducted by the Associated Press and GfK, found that 69 percent of those surveyed have no interest in buying a Surface tablet. More than half of the poll’s respondents had never even heard of Windows 8.

Of course, that poll was conducted before Microsoft’s Surface and Windows 8 launch event, which may have increased public awareness since then. The pop-up stores could contribute to that effort as well—and maybe lead to more sales for Microsoft.

Pop-up scene

To see how Microsoft’s pop-up efforts were paying off, we dropped in on a couple of the stores. Our first stop was at the Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas, the tourism mecca of the United States. Occupying a kiosk squished between an oxygen bar and some benches, this Microsoft pop-up outlet within shouting distance of the Vegas Strip offered the chance to gauge customer interest in the Surface.

Michael Homnick
Touch Covers and Type Covers are also on hand in Microsoft’s pop-up stores.

The Las Vegas store had eight stations set up for people to try out the tablet, and plenty of employees were on-hand on a busy weekend afternoon to walk them through the idiosyncrasies of swiping and typing on the Surface. We didn’t see many purchases, but the kiosk teemed with people examining the product and peppering employees with questions.

Eric Clum, a 39-year-old software developer from Columbus, Ohio, was in Las Vegas for the weekend and decided to test the Surface to see if it would fit his business and personal needs. Clum said he wasn’t sure what to expect of the Surface, given that Microsoft has never before ventured into hardware design, but was pleased with the tablet’s slick appearance and its kickstand.

Still, he walked away from the store on Sunday empty-handed. “I’m waiting to see if [his employer] will buy it for us,” Clum said. If not, Clum said, he’ll buy his own.

As Clum drifted away from the kiosk, a Microsoft employee was walking another software developer, 30-year-old Osiris Guerrero, through the set-up of his Surface. Guerrero took up residence on a nearby sofa to set up his Microsoft account with some employee assistance and began experimenting with the Surface’s capabilities.

That out-of-box experience is designed to get buyers comfortable with the Surface before they take it home, store manager Scott Gregory said. The tablet comes with a written tutorial, but Gregory said the company wants to “let you touch [the Surface], play with it” before leaving one of its retail outlets.

The Surface is Guerrero’s first tablet, and as a Microsoft aficionado who also owns a desktop PC and an Xbox, he said he was “looking forward to seeing Windows 8 in action and the look and feel.”

Guerrero said he was impressed by the Surface’s responsiveness and ease of use; he also liked the fact that he could work in desktop mode with the Office suite and revert back to the new Windows 8 interface for entertainment and Web-surfing.

iPad vs. Surface

On a Friday afternoon at the San Francisco Microsoft pop-up, the scene was decidedly calmer.

Michael Homnick
Microsoft says one of the goals of its pop-up outlets is to give shoppers some hands-on time with the Surface.

Rich, a 35-year-old video game developer from the East Bay who declined to give his last name, purchased a Surface at the pop-up and said he plans to use the Surface for work and entertainment.

“It’s the first time in a while I’ve seen something have a legitimate chance at poking at iPad and Android and having a third competitor,” the developer said. “Microsoft has a crapload of money, so we’ll see if they can actually put that behind it and make a successful product.”

Vu Ho, a 34-year-old IT specialist from Orange County, was in San Francisco for the weekend and dropped by the mall to take a look at the Surface. He plans to wait until the Surface Pro comes out to purchase the tablet, but said he’s impressed with what he’s seen of the product so far.

“And I’m pretty bored with the iPad,” he added.

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