Microsoft in the mall? Retail store plans leak

Apes Apple's Genius Bar, but may have to tackle problems from all PC brands

Microsoft today confirmed that plans for its upcoming retail stores, which leaked to a popular gadget site, are legitimate. But it said that the design concepts are not necessarily the final word on what's coming.

One expert called the plans "too techie," but applauded Microsoft for tackling retail.

Late Friday, Gizmodo posted more than four dozen slides from a July 7 PowerPoint presentation created by New York-based Lippicott, a self-styled "design and brand strategy" consultant firm. Lippicott's consumer retail clients include Borders, Dairy Queen, Intuit and Keebler.

The 54 posted images, part of a 140-slide collection, detailed everything from store layout ideas and a shopping bag design to Microsoft's answer to Apple's Genius Bar and a wrap-around digital display wall.

Today, Microsoft acknowledged it had hired Lippicott, but downplayed the significance of the plans. "As a part of our process in briefing creative agencies, we shared some early prototypes and concepts of our retail store plans," said Microsoft spokesman Frank Shaw in a Monday e-mail. No final decisions have been made. As we previously announced, we are on track to open retail stores this Fall."

Microsoft first announced in February that it would push into Apple's turf by creating retail stores under its own brand. Microsoft hired a former DreamWorks executive, David Porter, to head the effort.

Earlier this month, Kevin Turner, Microsoft's chief operating officer -- formerly with discount giant Wal-Mart -- promised that some of his company's stores would be located "right next door to Apple stores" later this year.

Within the slides leaked to Gizmodo were several that detailed the strengths of rival brands' retail stores, including Apple's, AT&T's and Sony's.

Stephen Baker, a retail analyst with the NPD Group, gave Microsoft's plans a mixed review. "I'm of two minds," said Baker. "Clearly, Microsoft is trying to incorporate all the areas that they have a play in, and create an ambiance, but I miss where it all ties together. It's a little too techie, [what] with the video walls."

Baker contrasted Lippicott's designs with Apple's retail stores. "One of the values of the Apple store is that it isn't overwhelming. It's just kind of there. It shows the products and the people, but there's not a lot of messages blaring at you and not a lot of interactivity."

Microsoft's stores, as specified by the leaked presentation, "appear busy," said Baker. "They have an awful lot of talking to the customers there. It's not a simple message."

Even so, Baker praised Microsoft for plunging into retail, and said the company would get more out of its stores than just retail sales. "I'm always in favor of manufacturers connecting directly to customers. There are a lot of things you can learn by investing in the customer relationship, a lot of things [Microsoft] can learn that Best Buy or Staples can't provide.

"If nothing else, Microsoft needs that."

Two weeks ago, Microsoft's Turner said as much in a keynote at the company's annual conference with its hardware and software partners. "Every single thing we learn in those Microsoft stores that we put on the street we're going to share that openly and transparently with all of our retail partners, so that they can do the exact same thing," Turner promised. "And we're going to get that customer feedback directly. We're in the game for the long-term here."

Microsoft will need more than just a few stores to make an impression in retail, Turner argued. "If they're going to go after this, three flagship stores won't cut it," Turner said. "They need 100-plus stores for some kind of a critical mass." Some have questioned whether Microsoft's doppelganger of Apple's Genius Bar -- variously called "Answer Bar," "Guru Bar" or "Windows Bar," depending on the PowerPoint slide -- would work, since unlike Apple, Microsoft doesn't build and sell its own computers.

Turner downplayed the problem, but said Microsoft would have to field questions from owners of a wide range of PC makers if it wants its "Bar" to be successful. "If they're going to have a Bar, they can't be sending someone away," Turner said. "If they're going to commit to that, they will certainly have to deal with questions about [PCs] with Windows on them."

Microsoft has not yet announced where, or exactly when, it will launch its first retail store or stores later this year.

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Gregg Keizer

Gregg Keizer

Computerworld
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