by Shane O'Neill

Microsoft Retail Stores: An Idea Just Crazy Enough to Work?

Feb 13, 20094 mins
Data Center

Coming soon to a mall near you: The Microsoft Store.

Once again, Microsoft is late to the game and following Apple, but hey, better late than never. The software giant will finally open retail stores headed by a shiny new VP of retail sales named David Porter, who comes to Redmond via Dreamworks Animation SKG and — gulp — Wal-mart.

Details about when and where the stores will open or what they will look like (hopefully they won’t look like Wal-mart) are scant. All we’re getting now is: “Defining the time frame, locations and specifics for planned Microsoft-branded retail stores will be Porter’s first order of business.” Porter starts Monday.

Let’s get one thing straight: the Microsoft stores will struggle; they will be mocked, and the whole operation may fall flat on its arse, but Microsoft has too much software and hardware languishing in marketing purgatory to ignore. Just to mention a few: The Windows Live platform (what is it again?), Zune, Surface computers, Vista (yes that Vista). Heck, they even have a pretty cool line of t-shirts that nobody knows about.

Last month, Microsoft revealed a pretend retail store. This is probably a good indicator of how the Microsoft store will look, which is to say it looks like a generic electronics store. Oh well.

In any case, The Microsoft stores, whenever and whereever (major cities only? Worldwide?) they do arrive, are certain to face derision and relentless comparison to the mega-successful Apple Stores. This is why keeping a somewhat generic interior look is not a bad idea. Looking like a hipper Circuit City with “I’m a PC” posters, and Windows and Zune logos on the walls is just fine. What would be criminal is trying to look in any way like an Apple Store. Might as well just dump gasoline on a fire.

Microsoft stores seem like a wild risk during the worst recession in all our lifetimes, but I don’t think they will fail. In fact, they could succeed. Microsoft has had an awfully hard time communicating with consumers with its scatter-brained TV ads that never mention actual products. The PC lifestyle (whatever that is) has been dreadfully marketed.

A store could change all that. It would be wise to time the store openings with the release of Windows 7. It could be a new dawn, a new day. Or something like that. The stores could also effectively consolidate the various Microsoft brands under one roof where consumers who have long labeled Microsoft a cold corporation could see and touch and play with a PC, an Xbox or a Zune and talk about it with a chipper, clean-cut sales guy in skin tight “I’m a PC” t-shirt. For what it’s worth, I do hope the sales people in Microsoft stores speak like normal humans and not androids with marketing chatter implanted in their brains. Smart and engaging in-store sales people (it won’t hurt if they are attractive) could help thaw Microsoft’s frosty reputation.

And as crazy as it seems to open stores in a terrible economy, at least the real estate will be cheap. Also, Microsoft is being proactive, getting off the sidelines and creating a big event; it’s not relying on retail partners anymore, most of which are going out of business anyway. Who’s left, Best Buy?

At the very least, it’s nice to see Microsoft taking some risks. Of course the company needs to dump a lot of marketing money into these store for them to catch on (and one wonders if Microsoft has that money or is willing to spend it). If they cut corners, customers will notice and stay away.

But if Microsoft markets hard but plays it cool, letting the customers come to them, then maybe, just maybe, people will forget about the evil empire and think of the Microsoft Store as simply a place where they can go buy cool stuff.