Thoughts on a Shopping Experience Strategy for the Microsoft Store

Tomorrow is the grand opening of the San Jose Microsoft Store at Valley Fair. A bold move to put it right across the Apple Store. Or foolish? Irrelevant, I think. Frankly, I’m over the Mac vs PC debate. The comparisons will be inevitable and Microsoft’s success or failure will assuredly be measured by the Apple Store bar. No one can win that. Apple Stores earn more per square foot (more than $5500/sqft) than any other US retailer (RetailSails). Tiffany is next and it’s not even close (about $3000/sqft). Unless Microsoft opens up a medical marijuana kiosk in the store, I don’t think they’ll come close. Now that’d be something to see, wouldn’t it?

Apple dominates the consumer market for media-consumption devices. Herein lies the success of its stores. Apple products invite you to touch them. They demand to be explored and experienced. While they are still priced beyond many hard-working folks, this price point becomes aspirational. People dream about Apple products; they save up to be able to buy an iPod or an iPad.

So why a Microsoft store? Apple Store envy? You don’t need to come into a store to download Microsoft software. Office isn’t a sexy store experience. Plenty of retailers sell PCs. So what model would make a Microsoft Store an interesting experiment? I’m still not convinced it’ll work, but I suppose I’d focus on three things:

  • product strengths (specifically, hardware)
  • user segmentation
  • creating an experience

Microsoft product strengths? I know, insert joke here. But let’s be fair, there are things that Microsoft does well. A Microsoft store cannot be about software, it has to be about the hardware. Here, Microsoft has quietly made some smart moves in Human Interface Design. MSFT keyboards and mice are perennial top ten list favorites. Surface is fast approaching an accessible price point for consumers; it’s already there for retailers with Samsung’s SUR40:

Kinect was the fastest growing consumer device in history, outpacing even the iPad or iPhone (not sure how it stacks against the recent iPhone 4S). And while mobile and connected devices will win the casual gaming market, console devices still dominate the hard-core gaming market. There, XBOX reigns supreme (at least in the US; sorry, PS).

There will be two types of shoppers at the Microsoft Store: existing Microsoft users and hard-core gamers. People who already use Microsoft at the office, have a PC at home, and rely on their resident family techie for support are going to come into the Microsoft store because it’s what they know and it’s what they’ll be told to do. So MSFT is going to have to take a page from the Apple Store playbook and become fanatical about customer service. Not only must they be extremely knowledgeable about their product, but they’ve gotta’ be able to explain it in a way that is accessible. Don’t talk to the consumer about the kernel, core dumps, or virtual memory problems. You’ll just frustrate them and reinforce the notion that MSFT products are complicated and not user-friendly. And before you Apple fanboys get into it, I’ve had my fair share of Mac OS lockups, software updates, and upgrade problems (it seems each iTunes update brings along some goodies to frustrate you). But Apple gives the user a graceful way to deal with these problems. MSFT needs to learn from this.

The Microsoft Store needs to capitalize on the hard-core gamers who will come into the store. While the heydey of the PlayStation store is a distant memory in the Bay (I do miss the PS experience at the Metreon sometimes), video game culture is still alive and booming elsewhere. Microsoft needs to visit Tokyo’s Akihabara district and Seoul’s Yongsan market and learn from these Geek Meccas. You want to build a fanatical user base like Apple? Learn more about otaku culture. It’s based on emotion and passion, not logic or reason. Don’t even try to explain how Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and Manga are so huge. Just ride the wave. It’s a culture. Live it.

The Apple Store is an experience. From the brushed metal to the pretty products in neat rows to the Genius Bar and learning stations, you go into an Apple Store for the experience. Microsoft needs to create an experience. And it can’t be just a cheap knock-off of Apple’s. Create a unique and innovative experience that sets you apart from your friendly neighbor across the mall. Microsoft has plenty of material to work with. The wraparound video wall is a start. Show off the Surface hotness. The Kinect is full of interactive customer experience possibilities.

Create a full-on XBOX gaming experience. Not some throwback arcade experience or the boring walk-up game displays they have at Best Buy, but a center for weekly tournaments, game launches, in-store signing/meet-and-greet/Q&A, and mini-Comic-Cons. It would have been perfect for MW3’s launch. Have a whole wall with local and global gamer rankings. Use some of Bill’s famous presence-aware tech. Give your gamers location-aware ID cards or key fobs (of course, Windows Mobile phones) so when they walk into the store their gamer stats flash on the screen (or how about Hall of Fame style replays?). You listening, Microsoft? Holler at your boy. I got tons of these ideas.

Hate if you want, say they’re paid endorsements (which product placements aren’t?), but Microsoft has star power. From Hove to Will.I.Am to Alicia Keys the Microsoft Store represents a physical location for events with these artists. Props for The Black Keys, MSFT Valley Fair, but Joe Jonas? Really? No offense to Joe, but his listeners are likely to be screaming tweens who use iPods and iPhones, not the Zune. I’m all for big names and promotion but let it be impactful and effective for your target customer segments. Microsoft should leverage its partner relationships. I don’t see HP and Intel rushing out to build retail stores any time soon. HP/Intel/MSFT powers tech on shows like West Coast Customs and Project Runway. See what I mean? Star power.

The Microsoft Store has a ways to go in developing its own identity and creating unique shopping experience. This isn’t about competing with the Apple Store, that ship has sailed. Run your own race, Microsoft. You do have some cool stuff to show off. Now you’ve just gotta’ figure out how to display it with style.

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