In what will probably be the worst idea in retail for the next decade, Microsoft is toying with the idea of opening retail locations! An obvious “me too” attempt in light of Apple’s success, the Microsoft stores would sell mostly software, but also XBOX products and the Zune line. And whatever other crap they think people want. The story comes from Fudzilla (via “sources close to the company”) and I heard it on Buzz Out Loud.
Let’s begin dissecting the many ways this is a terrible idea.
Apple set the bar pretty high for electronics and computer retailers. Not because of their product offerings, but for their service and the Genius Bar concept. With customer service at the heart of any successful retail environment, it seems an unlikely match for Microsoft who are famously cold-hearted with support of their products.
On a similar note, Microsoft would be forced to support 3rd-party hardware as they don’t manufacture or sell PCs of their own. With this immense variety of hardware configurations, Microsoft retail would soon devolve into a glorified PC repair shop in order for them to satisfy the customer service offerings of Apple. And considering Geek Squad or Circuit City appear in the news every 5 minutes for massive cock-ups in the realm of PC repairs, it’s not exactly the best idea.
Additionally, electronics and computer retails rely on customers being able to try out products as a method of selling them on it. But what can Microsoft do when all the customers already use a PC and Windows? I don’t know about you, but I can’t name a single person who will get in the car and drive to a physical store just to see the latest version of Powerpoint running live on a PC. Microsoft’s products are many things, but sexy is not one of them. This allure, which serves other retail environments well, will be nearly impossible for Microsoft to capture.
Microsoft’s design culture is pretty bland. It’s not offensive, but it’s nothing to talk about. They haven’t cracked the notion of branding an entire product line or company and tying those design principles into the products and packaging. In other words, any Microsoft retail environment will be boring. Sport a boring-yet-big trade show booth might work at CES, but to get shoppers to spend actual money, you have to wow them, surprise them, and create a pleasant and exciting environment. Not what Microsoft does well.
Of course the bigger notion here is that the Microsoft brand is ailing. They don’t have the momentum they did in the 80s and 90s and their flagship product, Windows, is losing street cred everyday. Launching a retail venture on this downswoop would only make things worse.
But I have to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment and say that the great glaring exception to all these pitfalls is the XBOX. The XBOX, in every way, is a great story in sub-branding. The reason it worked is pretty simple: it’s a self-sustaining company within Microsoft. Because it’s targeted at a much smaller market, it’s free of the corporate oversight and meddling that comes from so many focus groups and ‘grandma’ testing. The XBOX team not only understands gaming, but they understand branding, buzz and non-traditional media. They are in many ways, the anti-Microsoft. Sorta like that rogue prince who will one day take over his father’s throne and change everything.
I actually think an XBOX store would be a great idea. Not only could they sell hardware and accessories, but provide repairs/upgrades, host tournaments, sell and preview games, and host press events and product launches. Interested gamers would wander in to test-drive the latest titles or maybe even convert to the XBOX from a PC or Playstation platform. Since XBOX has a unique graphic aesthetic and overall brand imagery, it could stand out in the retail sector. And with the somewhat maverick and unpretentious tone of the XBOBX brand, the store might feel more like a local video game shop than a new branch on a massive corporate tree.
The long and short of it is that Microsoft should not open a retail store. An XBOX store might not be a bad idea, which speaks volumes about how the company and its brands. Perhaps splitting the empire into separate emirates might not be such a bad idea.