The theme of Microsoft’s latest ads is “Windows Everywhere”—and if you visit a Best Buy store in the near future, you’ll certainly understand why.
Best Buy will be partnering with the software giant to add stores-within-a-store to 500 selected locations within the United States, plus another 100 more within Future Shop and Best Buy locations in Canada. And the size will be in your face as well: 1,500 square feet to 2,200 square feet, on par with the size of the homes into which those PCs will be installed.
Inside each “store” will be a mixture of Microsoft devices: Windows-based tablets and PCs, Windows Phones, Microsoft Office, the Xbox console, and more. Microsoft said that each space will also include examples of how Windows services straddle those devices, and showcase the latest ultramobile Windows-based PCs, both from third parties as well as its own Surface. The Best Buy stores will be installed from late June through September.
The idea is to put Windows back in front of shoppers’ faces in time for the preview and eventual (re)launch of Windows, with Windows 8.1. Microsoft is rolling out the preview release of Windows 8.1, sometimes known as “Windows Blue,” on June 26, at its BUILD conference in San Francisco. But it’s also been on a media blitz of sorts, spacing out the new features of Windows 8.1 in a bid to attract media attention, launching ads, and generally promising to meet nonplussed consumers halfway.
Microsoft signalled its intentions in early May, when Microsoft Windows marketing chief Tami Reller told The Wall Street Journalthat Microsoft was embarking on a strategy to engage with its customers once again. Two points in that revised stategy included, according to the Journal, “helping people overcome obstacles to learning the revamped software, [and] altering the shopping experience for consumers.”
That’s exactly what the in-store boutiques promise. From a retail perspective, Best Buy is simply pushing a trend that former Apple retailing chief Ron Johnson tried at JC Penney: Let third-party brands design their own showcases for their products. (JCP fired Johnson in April, after Johnson’s big bet to eliminate discount pricing failed miserably.)
Microsoft didn’t say, but it’s almost certain that Microsoft is funding the store-within-a-store concept, propping up the struggling Best Buy. Microsoft has also made a $2 billion investment into a key partner, Dell, demonstrating what it will do to keep its Windows PC ecosystem humming along.
What’s different about the Best Buy experience? Support and staff, one of the keys to Reller’s turnaround strategy. An ”interview” with Microsoft chief marketing officer Chris Capossela described the push as a “takeover” of Best Buy.
”Well, unlike a lot of store-within-a-store concepts, this will actually be a department-level takeover within Best Buy stores,” Capossela said. “And they will be massive in size, up to 2,200 square feet in some locations. The other unique thing about the Windows Store is the people. There will be an additional 1,200 staff on hand to provide a great customer experience, whether it’s choosing the right PC or showing consumers how to stream Xbox music through their Surface. Finally, the online experience should be fantastic. We’ll have a full online Windows Store experience that will mirror the in-store look-and-feel and offer a full range of Microsoft products, even those from other places in the Best Buy store.”
And that’s not all. Surface and other Windows tablets will be showcased in the tablet department, Windows Phones will be predominantly displayed in the phone department, and so on.
Capossela said that shoppers could expect an “innovation table” in the front, the ecosystem section, and a back wall with accessories and other devices. “It’s something that has to be seen to be believed,” he said.
Of course, Microsoft already has a network of retail locations: the Microsoft Stores. Currently, Microsoft owns 68 Microsoft Stores within the United States, each performing much the same function as the Best Buy showcases. A Microsoft spokeswoman said that the two retail experiences will coexist.
”Microsoft remains committed the Microsoft Store network,” Microsoft said in a statement. “With 68 stores open in North America, Microsoft is excited about the success to our growing network. However, Best Buy is the No. 1 retailer for computers, and we felt this was also a great opportunity to offer a superior buying experience for the millions of customers who rely on Best Buy to learn from and purchase their computers.”
One analyst, however, said that Microsoft’s move is too little, too late.
”Microsoft’s Windows Store represents a vital strategic step forward in its retail strategy, and ought to yield some benefits,” Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder said. “At the same time, the move should have happened several years ago, it isn’t quite as ambitious as it might have been, and Microsoft will have to work hard to overcome legacy practices within the Best Buy ecosystem. All in all, the opportunities outweigh the challenges with this move. But Microsoft will not rise to the strategically stellar position currently occupied by the Apple Store, which remains the most impressive achievement in retail in any category.”
The most recent ad debuted last night. Although the ad focuses on the Windows 8 interface, Microsoft ties it to the Windows PC, the Windows Phone, and the Surface. The tagline? “One experience. On every device. For everything in your life.” Another, seen below, takes a more Office-centric feel.
Microsoft isn’t the only provider promising an ecosystem—Apple could reproduce this with an iPhone, iPad, and Macintosh, for example—but Microsoft’s returned to the practical. It’s all part of a humbler, more responsive, and dare we say it—ubiquitous Microsoft. Microsoft may not regain the luster it once had, but it’s making some focused, aggressive moves to do just that.
Small and Medium Business
As PCWorld's senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.