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Worlds Apart: A Microsoft Store and an Apple Store

I was in the Seattle area the week of September 3rd, 2012, doing some filming in the Microsoft studios for the Windows Server 2012 launch.  My hotel was in downtown Bellevue and one night that I actually had to myself I was able to go on walk-about – get dinner at a local Thai noodle place and see the sights.  Checking the area, I saw a Microsoft store was near and decided this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.  I’ve been in Apple stores before, in fact, I was in the “Steve Jobs” Apple store in Palo Alto the week before, surfing myITforum.com and leaving the main page up on all the iPads, so I was looking to do some comparisons.

Apple Store, Palo Alto

First off, I have to say this up front: I am in NO WAY an Apple fanboy, or even the least bit enamored with the Apple products like the many consumers who snatch up every new Apple release like a zombie in search of fresh, steaming brains.  In fact, I actually swing the other way, toward Microsoft, when it comes to technology, devices, and solutions.  However, as most of you know, I’ve always tried hard to keep an open mind and stick to the facts about things, instead of clouding the issue with my own zealous belief.

So, with that said, it makes my comparison of the two retail stores a tougher pill to swallow.

I need to add a couple disclaimers, too.  The Microsoft store that I visited was in a mall.  The “Mall” setting has been on a steady decline for years.  Malls haven’t been a popular consumer solution for quite a while, but Microsoft probably should have considered this.  The Apple store I’m comparing to is located in Palo Alto, which is right on the main drag near Stanford University and downtown Palo Alto is always buzzing with activity fed by a steady flow of college students.  Still, to make the comparison as “clean” as possible, I also visited an Apple store in the same mall as the Microsoft store.  Also, I visited the Microsoft store at the end of the day when people were probably heading home for the night and sales engineers were probably anticipating getting off work.

So, here we go.

First Impressions

The Microsoft store and the Apple store look very similar.  In fact, the store front and the store layout is so close in design it’s scary.  The Microsoft store may actually be larger than the Apple store, but that’s hard to tell without getting out a tape measure to get square footage.  The reason why the Microsoft store looked so much larger and spacious is that there were about 5 other people in the store besides me.  And, they were all congregated at the XBOX Kinect area.

Microsoft Store, Bellevue, Washington

Cleanliness

What?  Cleanliness in comparison between stores?  Yep.  And, here’s why.

In the market for a new phone, I entered the Microsoft store and immediately took a left turn to check out the Windows Phone table, hoping to catch a glimpse of the new or old Nokia Lumia. I immediately noticed that the phone screens were marred with the day’s finger swipes.  In fact, they were so dirty that I didn’t want to touch them.  It looked like the devices had been dragged through a puddle of standing mud, or some kid with a melted chocolate bar had tried surfing for the latest food pyramid in hopes that candy had somehow finally made it to the list.   OK…so end of the day, it makes sense that the devices would accumulate a bunch of touchscreen dirt, right?

Compare that to the Apple store.  The Apple store workers are constantly cleaning the screens of touchscreen devices.  Anytime you pick up a device in an Apple store it looks brand new, like it was just pulled from the original packaging.  The Apple workers work hard to make ensure your impressions of the devices are stellar.  They are in pristine shape and they all work – which leads me to my next comparison point…

Device Availablity

When you go shopping for anything, particularly technology, you expect to be presented with working devices.

In the Microsoft store, there was a long line of tables dedicated to various manufacturer’s laptops, all running Windows 7.  Laptops are a bit boring these days, and they are all pretty much the same no matter where you shop.  It’s basically up to you to determine your needs based on speed, screen size, disk space, etc.  So, I skipped the laptop tables and headed straight to the hot device of the day – tablets.

There was a single table for tablets, so I was able to quickly round the table and get a sense of the specific tablet I wanted to test out.  The majority of tablets were the Samsung slate, which, personally, I don’t like at all.  It’s not a tablet, it’s a “slate”.  The size of the device is just too large and heavy, almost like carrying around a table top.

Out of probably eight or ten tablets, two of them were powered off and weren’t available for use.  To me, this doesn’t send a good message.  In the Apple store, every piece of hardware works and is powered on.  If a device ceases to function it’s removed from the floor and replaced with one that works.  This narrowed down my search.

The tablets were all running Windows 7.  I thought this was a bit strange since all the hubbub has been placed on the approaching Windows 8 public release.  Still, I was able to mess around with a couple Windows 7 tablets to find out just how slow and unresponsive Windows 7 is on the Samsung.  Granted, I’ve run Windows 7 tablet-version before, but the performance on the Samsung was excrutiatingly slow.  Even more specifically, the screen rotation speed, between landscape and portrait mode, on the Samsung was horrible.  I wasn’t able to check, but to me, it seemed like a driver issue. If you’re going to adequately display a device in a store, so that people actually want to buy one, it needs to be the best performing piece of equipment ever.  More detail on getting the devices performing at their optimum needs to be addressed.

OK…so, I wanted to see a tablet running Windows 8, as any consumer would.  I asked a sales engineer why there were no Windows 8 tablets available to use, and her answer was that “Windows 8 is not released yet”.  That makes sense in a small way, but still, with Microsoft pouring so much effort into revamping the Windows operating system, you would think that a Windows 8 device would be available to check out.  Windows 8 is a monumental release, treat it as such.

Despite not having a device running Windows 8 on the floor, the sales engineer indicated (with a wink, no less) that they had some in the back and she would bring one out for me to try.  Great!

The first tablet (again, a Samsung slate) was set before me.  It locked up.

A second tablet (another Samsung) was brought out.  It locked up.

The third attempt to deliver a tablet running Windows 8 (yes…Samsung) was successful.  The familiar Windows 8 interface was humming along on the Samsung slate.  As I fingered my way through the OS it was indeed snappy.  I asked the sales engineer what she thought about Windows 8.  She said she loved it.  I asked her what she thought about the interface and whether or not you could use a mouse and keyboard with it.  She said she loved the interface but that Windows 8 is not meant for a mouse and keyboard.  You can use those, but it’s primarily a touchscreen operating system.

So, there it is.  Even the Microsoft store employees are indicating what we’ve been hearing and thinking – that Windows 8 has been built for touchscreen.  I leave that there.

Again, in an Apple store…everything works.

Sales Methodology

One of the biggest differences between a Microsoft store (at least the one I visited) and an Apple store is how a sales person approaches sales.

In an Apple store you are approached immediately by an individual who appears to really love their job. They give a warm “hello”. They don’t dig straight into “selling”, instead they get personal.  They ask you questions like “where are you from?”, “what brings you here today?”, “don’t you just love today’s weather?”, stuff like that.  They spend a good 10 minutes finding out about you, and then taking that information and determining the tact they should take to solve the problem you entered the store with.  They don’t take you straight to their latest and greatest stuff to wow you, instead they take you to the best fit for what you are looking for.  You get a good feeling right off the bat.

I spent 15 minutes in the Microsoft store before anyone acknowledged my presence, and when they did I had already made up my mind that I was just about ready to leave.  With only five other potential customers in the store, I thought I’d get a warmer welcome.  And, with the aforementioned comparison points, I left the store feeling unsatisified.

Popularity

As I’ve noted, I was in the Microsoft store in the late evening.  There were only five people (customers) milling about in the store.  Obviously, the lack of patronage had to be related to the time of day.  So, I left the Microsoft store and made my way to the second level of the mall, to the Apple store located there.  Same time of day.  Same mall setting. There were close to 50 people in the Apple store.  And, anytime I’ve ever visited an Apple store (the one in Palo Alto, included) there have been no less than, at least, 30 people.  There have been rumors that Apple employs “plants” to make the store look busier than it is.  I have no idea if that’s true or not, but when you look at Apple’s sales numbers, you kind of have to guess that they are, indeed, producing brisk sales.  As soon as I entered the Apple store, I was greeted with a warm welcome.

Conclusion

If Microsoft has no intention of building a successful brick-and-mortar business, the are on track.  If the Microsoft store is nothing more than a “we do that, too” or a real-world ad banner on a web page, success is imminent.  However, if they are truly interested in building a brand that people love, a place people love to visit, and brisk sales, they have a lot of work to do.

Microsoft needs to enlist an army of secret shoppers to visit both Apple stores and Microsoft stores.  Take notes and determine what’s working and what’s not.  Take the data to reeducate the sales people and reorganize the store so that the most popular technologies (XBOX Kinnect) exist up front where passers-by can see that the store has some excitement.  Make people want to be there.

I’ll keep visiting Microsoft stores when traveling to areas where they exist, just to see if there’s a difference between the various locations.  Obviously, your experiences are probably different than mine, so I would love to hear about them.  Drop me a note or leave a comment here.

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A community professional, keynoter, and evangelist who has driven social media and marketing strategies, editorial successes, delivered customer successes and built some of the largest and longest-running online communities. Rod has created, managed and grown small, medium, and mega-sized conferences; run entire editorial teams to deliver record traffic and market leadership; as product manager, directed the success of hundreds of product releases; supported sales and marketing to ensure customer success; developed, run and sold businesses; written thousands of technical articles, white papers, case studies, and technical documentation; hosted and delivered hundreds of attendance shattering webinars and virtual tradeshows; and delivered keynote speeches and sessions at a wide variety of events including conferences, webinars, events, and user groups.

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