Technologizer

Sadly, the PC Industry Doesn’t Deserve a Place as Nice as the Microsoft Store

Microsoft's answer to the Apple Store is wonderful. But PC buyers apparently don't want wonderful.

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Harry McCracken / TIME

The above photo shows the Microsoft Store at the San Francisco Centre mall on Monday evening at about 7pm. The folks in colorful T-shirts are store employees, and everyone else is a customer; as you can tell, the place is not devoid of shoppers, but it’s also not, um, exactly bustling.

I was moved to snap the shot after reading a piece by Slate’s Matthew Yglesias (a writer who I admire) with the provocative title “These Two Photos Show What a Disaster Microsoft is Today.” The two pictures are of an Apple Store and a Microsoft Store in Arlington, Va. The Apple shop looks pretty frenetic, in the way that Apple Stores usually do; there’s nobody in the Microsoft one who isn’t a staffer.

Yglesias concludes:

The real issue is that there’s nothing wrong with the store. It’s a great place to shop. Much better than the Apple Store, really, because the Apple Store is crowded, and it’s a little hard to get an employee’s attention. At the Microsoft Store you get a very pleasant physical environment and a helpful staff. It’s just that nobody wants to buy their stuff.

It’s still a very profitable company thanks to its enormous strengths in the enterprise market. But enterprises are made of people. If nobody wants to buy Microsoft’s stuff, that will trickle up into the enterprise.

Now, there are some basic problems with concluding that the fact that a particular Microsoft Store is eerily quiet means that “nobody” wants to buy Microsoft products and the company is therefore in dire shape. The Xbox and related products have been selling well for years; personal computers may be in decline, but ones that run Windows still dominate the market. Plenty of people are buying Microsoft products. It’s just that most of them aren’t doing it at Microsoft Stores.

Still, if Microsoft’s adventure in retailing has been an ill-fated one — and it’s true that the locations I’ve visited have nearly always been thinly populated — there are lessons to be learned.

Back in 2009, when the company announced that it was going to open mall stores, I was as skeptical as anyone. I thought that it wasn’t a sensible organizing principle for a retail establishment any more than a Procter & Gamble Store would be.

But when I finally got around to visiting a Microsoft Store in 2012, I found it surprisingly pleasant. In fact, it may be the nicest chain of non-Apple-centric computer stores that’s ever existed, with a well-curated selection of high-quality PCs and other products from a variety of manufacturers.

It’s radically different than the way PCs have been retailed for years — which, whether the store in question was a Best Buy or a Circuit City or a CompUSA, has usually involved a huge and chaotic array of items of varying quality, an emphasis on low prices and little to no effort to elevate the shopping experience. Yet the foot traffic in Microsoft Stores suggests that there may not be a critical mass of consumers who crave something classier.

By contrast, Apple has always catered to those who value refinement and aren’t terribly price sensitive. And Apple Stores can be small and selective without trying to compete with big-box retailing — because there’s no such thing as an enormous brick-and-mortar store with an Apple focus.

I’m sure that the point of the Microsoft Store chain was never to generate obscene profits or steal business from other merchants. Microsoft wanted an opportunity to show its ecosystem in the best possible light, and to talk to its end customers without having to involve an unreliable middleman such as Best Buy. But if the stores I’ve visited are representative, I assume that the company is disappointed with how the chain has done.

And so am I. Maybe PC buyers prefer a lowest-common-denominator shopping experience. They’ve certainly been conditioned to expect it.

22 comments
AFriendlyNerd
AFriendlyNerd

A lot people, including a lot of bloggers and writers, are commenting on the pleasantness of *visiting* a Microsoft store. But trying to shop there is a disappointing experience. I and a friend have both tried to actually shop at a Microsoft store, to buy PC's. But what we both found, at least in San Francisco, were friendly guys in colorful shirts who acted like Apple Store employees, but lacked knowledge of the products sold. And bizarrely, even though we both went on different occasions, we both found a surprising number of computers and tablets NOT WORKING, and the staff seemingly unable to rectify the situation.


It's valid to criticize Apple for their higher prices and locked down products, but there is value in what they provide. Their stores are crowded for a reason. There's a whole cohesive ecosphere at Apple, and that includes great knowledge, reliability, and customer service at their stores. And this is where Microsoft store really can't succeed, partly because they can't possibly train a staff of sales and repair people to be experts on products from 20 different brands. 


Visiting a Microsoft store and shopping there are two different animals, and shopping there falls short, and it's evidenced by the emptiness of the sales floor. Microsoft can put hip talking dudes in colorful t-shirts on the floor, but that's not enough to re-create the Apple experience.

JoeBelkin
JoeBelkin

The only reason there is a Microsoft store is more arrogant cluelessness on Ms' part. They presume that if they open a store, peope will rush to shop there in droves. Bottom line, since 1996, Microsft has had ZERO success in the consumer realm. ZERO. Why? Microsft has spent all that time showing people on a daily basis the Microsoft brand is buggy, service poor and full of virii - from benign neglect to outright hostility to cluelessness (we said you need tiles and no start button - you will take it and pay FULL retail, we're Microsoft!) ... Zune, WebTV, watches, play4sure, home media PC, Kin, WMA, Win CE, MSN, Live, Bing, etc, etc ... ALL FAILURES and virtially all BILLION DOLLAR FAILURES. and yes, Xbox - NOT only $20 Billion in the hole that they have written off but by selling a gaming PC with no driver or malware issues for $299 dollars, they effectively killed the $3k PC gaming market - that's Microsoft's cluelessess. So, after 20 years of neglect, their brand is only acceptable when it comes with a $399 WIN PC - how are those retail box sales WIn 8 doing? How are those WIN PC MB Air clones doing. MS tablets with WIN? ALL FAILURES.


Why? No one willing to pay more than the lowest price because WINDOWS is worth zero to a consumer. That's why a MB Air WIN PC clone cannot even sell at 80% the cost of an Apple laptop. Even at $599, there is no traction - many PC manufacturers even made them look like a Mac from 8 feet away but the bottom line, no WIN PC is worth above 40% the cost of an Apple laptop. Because WINDOWS is not only worth zero, now in 2013, it's worth MINUS 600  dollars to the average consumer - that is Microsft 2013. 


So, retail will almost certainly be aother $1 BILLION dollar failure. MS thinks it's 1994 and they rule the world - which they did then for a short years but since then, Microsoft shareholders have taken it in the shorts literally, they have taken an 80% margin enterprise software company and tried to make it into a consumer company with HUNDREDS of BILLIONS of dollars of losses. 

phil28
phil28

None of this is very complicated. Service is worth something. Not loosing the use of your commuter is worth something.


The value of the Apple Stores has been immensely valuable to me. When I used to use PCs and encountered a problem, the PC manufacturers were totally inept at fixing any defect. They'd ask you to reinstall Windows first. It was always a huge hassle to get your PC repaired. And when you finally got permission to send it in, it could be many days or a few weeks before you got it back.


With Apple I can walk into any store and get most any issue resolved within 1-3 days. No hassle, no long waits on the phone, and no surly phone attendants to deal with. 


In recent weeks, a friend had his system board fail. Apple returned the computer in 3 days. I had batteries fail in a 14 month MacBook Air. Batteries were replaced on the spot in one hour. Even though my warranty was one year, the technician said there would be no cost because the batteries should last longer. 


Poor service was the downfall of Dell and HP's computer business. They should have priced their PCs to include strong service backup and not sell for low cost and then subject their customers to PC hell.


Unfortunately MS stores cannot offer the services of the Genius bar. Each computer they sell is from a different manufacturer, and it would be hard to have experts trained on so many different designs and stock so many different parts. But if they could, and became authorized repair services for the computers they sell, them the stores would likely fill up.


usamare
usamare

Not so much conditioned to expect it.  PC shoppers have forced the retailers to provide it.

Basically, before a purchase, you use the Internet to research all there is to know about a given product so there's hardly any point to discussions with a sales rep about it.

  Likewise, there's no reason to blindly pay top dollar for it.  Find the specs you want, compare the makes/models in that range, check the reviews, find the best prices, make the purchase.  With all the different makes/models/stores/sales, you can get a dozen different prices for essentially the same product.  Often the best price is a place that doesn't offer much knowledgeable assistance, but that was covered above.  

Imagine if the iPad Air was $500 at the Apple store, $400 at Best Buy, and $250 at Walmart, do you seriously think even the nicest Apple store will sell more than Walmart?  That's the PC market and it's great for consumers.

BillPytlovany
BillPytlovany

Doesn't it fall back to the basic issue of proprietary products? It wasn't long ago if you wanted an Apple logo'd product you could only purchase it from Apple or one of the few authorized dealers. Products with a Windows logo have been available at computer stores, big box stores to drug stores, direct mail catalogs or ads in magazines.

If someone wants to put their hands on a Windows laptop or tablet they can go to an OfficeMax, Best Buy even the Walmart before looking for the closest Microsoft store. If I was shopping for a MacBook I'd still probably head to an Apple Store even if they might be discounted somewhere else.

Bill

WaltFrench
WaltFrench

@Harry wrote, “Microsoft wanted an opportunity to show its ecosystem in the best possible light, and to talk to its end customers without having to involve an unreliable middleman such as Best Buy.”


Unfortunately, the opportunity to show its wares, and the reality of having anybody actually look at them, are two very different things. 


I don't think this is bad analysis on Harry's part; rather, I think Microsoft got a bit ahead of itself in thinking it would create the whole mindset of people looking to shop for tech products. But that's really quite complex — needing info that you trust the salespeople to give you better than a tech blog would (most Microsoft personal clients are used to getting their info online or from friends; business users aren't interested in retail offerings at all); being the sort of person who shops in malls (I only occasionally set foot in one); the Microsoft brand, as others often note, is far from “Cool!”; etc.


Apple spent many years refining its understanding of retail, from stores-within-stores in Japan, to “hiring” the head of GAP for its board, etc. Many years. It's unsurprising that Microsoft hasn't yet worked out the formula. In the meantime, it's a bit of an embarrassment. Or maybe worse, leading to the belief that even if it's a bit claustrophobic/crazy at an Apple store, it's still better than whatever you'd get in the Microsoft store.

MediaCastleX
MediaCastleX

Actually, the way I look at it is not so much that SO many people are at Apple buying, they're just conditioned to be a part of the "IN" crowd checking out the flashy, boutique-style tech that is quite popular. That's the reality of the store situation, Microsoft stores are a relatively new idea to people and still many just don't get it. They compare the two trying to tell the story that Microsoft is a loser, but that is just the "Vox Populi" (no pun intended, it should imply the voice of the people or popular opinion, no?) which many of the talking heads online just pass along like a horrible telephone game. People crowd at Apple just to be there, and sure they may make great sales, but the stuff's expensive all around and they don't need to sell everything. Meanwhile, I can have a nice relaxing time at the Microsoft store shopping, asking questions, getting answers and a nice cup of coffee while I wait, because they are pretty awesome as a store. It'll catch on, just you wait. lol =p

ccsuwxman
ccsuwxman

I visited the Microsoft Store in San Diego a few years ago.  Very nice.  When they opened a "kiosk" at the Mall in Columbia, Maryland last year, I looked forward to their increased presence.  In fact, they stated that the kiosk would become a permanent store in the Mall.  However, it didn't work, and the kiosk (and any thought of a permanent storefront) has since disappeared.

harrymccracken
harrymccracken moderator

@phil28 One of the high points of the whole PC industry was how good Dell's customer service was back in the 1990s. Sadly, I don't know if anyone does that sort of truly top-notch phone- and onsite-based work anymore.

benso033gm
benso033gm

 @usamare "That's the PC market and it's great for consumers."


Well, it's great for keeping initial purchase price down, which is good for consumers, as far as it goes. But I would say it also tends to keep mass market PC hardware manufacturing quality at a level just above minimally acceptable, and support services at a level just above throw-it-out-the-window-in-frustration.


Sure, I'm biased, but if I'm having trouble with my Mac, I can make an appointment at the local Apple store any day of the week and bring it in for free troubleshooting. Or I can (also for free) just ask Genius Bar folks waaay more knowledgeable than the usual big-box staff about how to do something  with my Mac, or do it better (which is, honestly, most of my visits to the Genius bar these days.)


I just don't think there's an equivalent on the PC side, other than depending upon having a friend knowledgeable in PC minutiae. But that's the PC market.


AFriendlyNerd
AFriendlyNerd

@BillPytlovanyTo be fair, you can now buy Apple products at all those places, too. Your shopping experience will be different at those other stores and Best Buy will do their damndest to frighten you into an extended warranty, but you can still go to an Apple store for questions and service later.

harrymccracken
harrymccracken moderator

@WaltFrench One of the odd things about the Microsoft Store is that it was designed for a Microsoft ecosystem which didn't really exist -- one in which the more Microsoft products you bought and used together, the happier you were. What with the Metro interface, Skydrive and other features spanning Windows, Windows Phone and Xbox, the ecosystem is only now beginning to catch up with the concept of the stores.

AFriendlyNerd
AFriendlyNerd

@MediaCastleXYou have the typical poor reasoning so relevant in any article discussion on PC or Mac, Android or iOS, Playstation or XBOX: "My product's customers are smart and the rest of you are stupid". I only hope you think your way through other life matters slightly better. You're the first person in this thread to announce that one side or the other is a "loser". Every one of these top brands has something to offer, and their biggest competitors do, too. If you can't objectively realize why Apple stores are crowded, and instead conclude that everyone inside is merely your intellectual inferior, well, that says a lot more about you than them.


Oh, question: You tell us we must "wait" for it to catch on. How much longer do you preduct we we must wait? It's almost 5 years already, a stark contrast to Apple store's instant and prolific success.

WaltFrench
WaltFrench

@MediaCastleX Do you ever think about how condescending or sneering a person sounds when he attributes success to insubstantial, flashy features, while his own favored brand, built like a Mac truck, languishes because nobody wants 18-wheelers?


Get a clue: personal technology is bought by people who can understand the device helping them to do what they enjoy and want. They are serving their interests just fine, while Microsoft is more than a bit tardy in its competitive offerings — nobody in their right minds would claim that WPs or Surface, for example, are close to having the personal-oriented apps and capabilities of the iProducts, and it's not clear that sitting on the sidelines between 2007 and 2012 gave Microsoft any great insights about how to play better with individuals.


Microsoft makes some fine products in the work world and their gamebox is perfectly OK. But Redmond was furiously late to the smartphone/tablet revolution and as Apple builds out their ecosystem, it's not clear why Redmond will regain any of its lost share.

AFriendlyNerd
AFriendlyNerd

@harrymccracken@phil28Nowadays, a business of more than 8 employees needs managed IT services. PC manufacturers are good to their business customers, but really only as far as warranties and exchanges go. You can buy top flight warranty services for every laptop, but it's a far better value to put that into an MSP to handle every aspect of a company's tech needs, including computer maintenance.

phil28
phil28

@harrymccracken @phil28  Exactly. For a time that's what set Dell apart. But once they began cost cutting it was their service and support that was cut way back, moving it from the U.S. to far away places. I think computers were always too complex to be repaired using mail order techniques.

whatsa
whatsa

But see thats where you're biased....

you're confusing quality with service.

All honest stats on this show Apples warranty replacements are at the same level as everyone else

Apple really dont make anything... window dressing and assembly is it. so its the same parts and based on their failure rates are no better.


Windows Store ... great idea

Nokia product line will give it a boost and can handle all warranty stuff

More Surface products the same thing.

For the simple end user buy surface and Nokia and it will be the same thing.

Mainstream products should now be the same 


PaulDirks
PaulDirks

@WaltFrench @MediaCastleX Because there's no shortage of people who really can't stand Apple under any circumstances mainly because they actually want to get at the guts of their machines in a way that Apple deliberately precludes.


AFriendlyNerd
AFriendlyNerd

@whatsaWho's biased in saying Apple doesn't make anything? The hardware, software, design and user experience are painstakingly made by Apple. The only thing they don't do is manufacture most of the stock components, but neither does just about anyone else. Even a Samsung laptop might have Samsung-labeled parts, but those parts are made by a completely separate factory somewhere else, or even outsourced, as is commonly the case.


And also Nokia and Surface "boost" didn't happen.

JoeBelkin
JoeBelkin

@whatsa That's where you are wrong about components. While Apple does use some industry standard components - their products simply last longer as most conusmer surveys and satisfaction ratings - Apple beats the rest of PC makers by a substantial margin. Bottom line, being able to walk in for FREE for the entire life of your hardware is worth something. I have literally seen people bring in Mac Classics (from 1990's?) - THEY DO NOT just look up your warranty status and decide whether to talk to you. While the store might not fix it for free, they will try and get it running and give you a FREE DIAGNOSES. The repair and parts might not be free under warranty but at least you know if it can be repiared and decide whether to do it but for the life of your product, evenif you did not buy it new - they will talk to you and diagnose it. (Of course, you can buy AppleCare - 3 years total warranty for about 15% of the cost of your device). But if it's a software issue, they will fix it for FREE.  


And of course, OS upgrades are free now as are all mobile OS upgrades. They have nearly 500 stores worldwide with a few open 24/7. 

whatsa
whatsa

walter 

walter you're problem is you are most likely a liberal arts type.

and as such are not really necessary for society to work.

just like the drinking profession in Roman times.

Their are a lot your type out there(13% by marketshare, 7% really) so I see the need to dumb it down for the challenged few but you are also seeing a education occurring and people now acknowledging the stupid symbian like interface of apple.

So I hope you education continues and soon you will not find these other systems as daunting as you do.

WaltFrench
WaltFrench

@PaulDirks @WaltFrench @MediaCastleX Are you somehow saying that XBox or WP8 or Surfaces are somehow significantly more open than Apple's products?


Because that'd be news to a lot of people. When it comes to customization, I'm quite happy to have a choice of widely-used, innovative apps, rather than choosing the color of the tiles on my home screen.


For that matter, there are probably many more hobbyists and semi-pros writing their own iOS apps than there are hobby WP or WinRT authors.


I have to give credit to Google for their PR efforts about how Android is so usable that you just download & compile it. Never mind the locked bootloaders on Android devices or lame browsers now bundled with the open Android.


But Microsoft — the subject of this article, IIRC, not Google or Apple — never claimed that they were going to let people run Skype over IP, tether laptops, have unlimited access to 3G data or any of the stuff that early Android's marketing people falsely claimed was Steve Jobs', not AT&T's, restriction.


So go ahead and hate all you like. It's not going to do Microsoft any good, at least if people look rationally at your point.