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.