Recently, I've noticed two interesting changes at my local Apple Store, both evidence of Apple's mastery of retail.
A few months ago, they remodeled to get rid of the large screen and seating area they used for in-store workshops. I liked the few classes I happened in upon during the weekend, but most of them were sparsely attended, and the workshops I really wanted to take--like Garage Band--were during normal work hours. In place of the demo area, they more than doubled the size of the Genius Bar, Apple's in-store customer support desk. The end-result: a mass of highly engaged customers at the back of the store, instead of a mostly empty space. (Engaged might mean enraged, but it seems that even customers with serious problems--like a dead iPod out of warranty--remain calm when faced with a real person as opposed to an anonymous phone support employee.)
More recently, my wife went in to buy me a Shuffle as a surprise--my 4th-generation iPod died a copule years ago, her iPod is permanently connected to an iHome clock radio upstairs, and my 30GB Zune is a little bulky for walking the dog or going to the gym. After talking to a salesperson who led her through colors and GB sizes and prices, she said she was ready to buy and started walking toward the registers at the front of the store. Not necessary--the salesperson had a handheld device with a credit card scanner, checked her out on the spot, and e-mailed her a receipt. Genius.
Sony has a lot of great products as well, but when I go to the nearby Sony Style store, it always feels a little haphazard, with PlayStations next to flat TVs next to Blu-ray discs. And it's never crowded. And I never leave with a purchase. (Although the array of flat-screens looping this Bravia commercial is refreshingly inoffensive--very little branding--and completely mesmerizes my two-year-old daughter.)
I've occasionally seen and heard rumors of a Microsoft push into retail. If so, they should be using the Apple Store as a model--nobody else does it better.