Microsoft's retail destiny: A face-off with Apple... in the Big Apple

Microsoft keeps opening retail stores, but in mostly unremarkable locations. Apple's Cube awaits its rival in central Manhattan.

Here's something you won't see in an Apple store, employees using massive video screens to demo products. Photo taken at Microsoft store in Los Angeles' Century City. Greg Sandoval/CNET

LOS ANGELES--I walked into a Microsoft store for the first time yesterday. And that says much more about Microsoft's retail strategy than it does about me.

Yes, I cover the tech sector--and two years after the world's most powerful software company launched its brick-and-mortar retail efforts, I've just managed to visit one now. But that's not entirely my fault.

See, there still is only one Microsoft store east of the Mississippi. I live in New York. I moved there in October 2009, the same month that Microsoft opened its first two stores--one in Scottsdale, Ariz., one in Mission Viejo, Calif., neither exactly a tech hot spot. Two years later, there still is no Microsoft showcase in Manhattan to rival the Sony Plaza or Apple's glass cathedral on 5th Avenue, commonly referred to as "the Cube." (Check out photos of the renovated Cube here ).

Microsoft, however, is on the move. The company is scheduled to open its second East Coast store in Tyson's Corner, Va., next week. That will be the 7th store Microsoft opened this year and the 14th overall (Sony has 27 U.S. stores and Apple has 245, according to their Web sites). Apparently, CEO Steve Ballmer has plans to continue opening stores. Microsoft shouldn't let much more time pass before coming to New York.

The city is center stage for marquee retailers and flying the flag there is important. Microsoft isn't some mom-and-pop operation that can satisfy itself with a busy corner of the local strip mall.

Meanwhile, not only can California boast five Microsoft stores, but four of them are in locations where they battle head-to-head with Sony and Apple. One of them is the sun-soaked outdoor mall in Century City, near the aptly named Avenue of the Stars. Yesterday afternoon, business was slow at the Microsoft store and slower still at Sony. At Apple, the place was crowded.

We've all heard the criticism about Microsoft's contributions to retail (wait a beat). They're all Apple's.

The wood tables, the earnest and geeky salespeople, the glass storefront, etc. That might be but I had a pleasant experience there yesterday. First, someone from Apple shooed me away when I started taking pictures in the store. I reminded the woman that they let me take pictures inside the Cube, and YouTube is stuffed with clips of people videotaping themselves inside Apple stores holding goats or dancing and nobody from the store bothers them. This Apple manager just smiled.

Over at Microsoft, Steve Perkins, a product advisor, was eager to help and told me to snap away, even before learning I was from CNET. I asked him ab>out Windows phones and he began demonstrating features using a section of the humongous video screen that wraps around nearly three quarters of the store. Other sales people were using other parts of the screen to demonstrate Xbox games.

Apple's renovated 5th Avenue store in Manhattan. Apple

He took me to the store's theater/instruction area, which of course is an Apple ripoff, but the video screen there was impressive. It was touch controlled and Perkins says that anybody can walk in off the street and use the theater for any kind of meeting. A gathering doesn't have to be about Microsoft products, Perkins said. What if someone is trying to sell Tupperware in Beverly Hills?

That person should use this facility, Perkins said. Offering techies a stage to show off power points isn't a bad way to get people in the store.

Still, Microsoft has a long way to go before challenging Apple. Not only does Apple dominate in the number of stores, but some doubt whether Microsoft possesses Apple's sense of style or can create the same first-class shopping experience--even with all the mimicking. There's also this: consumers shop at Apple because for decades now they have loved Apple products.

Microsoft hasn't been anywhere near so successful at duplicating that kind of customer loyalty.

Correction This story incorrectly reported the number of Microsoft stores east of the Mississippi. There is a location in Atlanta.

 

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