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Standard caveats apply: I’m a Microsoft employee and fanboy.  I’m not ashamed.  I will say though when the announcements of the Microsoft retail brick-and-mortar stores opening, I was skeptical…no doubtful.  I kept (and still do a bit) thinking to myself how are they going to compete with the likes of Best Buy and others?!  Nonetheless, I waited patiently to see the plans.

I wouldn’t have to wait long as the first store opened up in Scottsdale, Arizona, USA.  Scottsdale is a neighboring town in the sprawl we call “Phoenix” (it’s about 40 mins from me in the QC).  When opening day came around, surely nobody would be there right?  Wrong.  Call them fanboys, eager folks to get tickets to the concert that night for their kids, whatever…but there were folks camped out.  And the lines were amazing.  The opening was an amazement to me of buzz and excitement from what I could tell.  4 days later I took the chance to go out there and take a look.

Microsoft Store EntranceI first saw a front entrance that didn’t display ‘old school’ Microsoft.  A subtle logo twist on the Windows logo (perhaps too subtle?  will people know) greets the header of the entry way.  Yes, it feels very Apple store-ish.  Naysayers flame away: copycat, blah blah.  So what…if you want to be successful, do you ignore what already has been successful?! No.

The store from the outside is very bright and clean.  Other than what are perhaps load-bearing pillars, floor-to-ceiling glass is in the entire front entry way.  When you walk in you’re greeted by some newly christened Softies (yes, they are full Microsoft employees…I see them in the GAL).  Each employee is wearing different colored shirts.  I’m assuming red means some type of supervisor or senior person.  I saw the manager, Cheryl, whom I’d been debriefed on earlier in the year.  The store was packed and I didn’t think it’d be appropriate to chat her up (aside from the fact my kids were yanking down all the Zune HDs from their docks).

Microsoft Store Crowd

I was approached by an associate who asked if I needed anything.  I identified myself as a fellow Microsoft employee and he asked me what team.  Silverlight, I told him.  Immediately he knew what that was and replied that he’s learning it right now coming from the Flash world as an animator.  Wow.  A retail clerk knowing Silverlight?!  We chatted about he Zune HD as I’d not seen them yet (one locked up on me while playing with it, which was weird). 

Microsoft Store laptop sales (dell adamo)I wandered around and was amazed at the laptop availability from all the major players: Dell (man that Adamo is sweet), Toshiba, HP, Sony, Acer, Lenovo, etc.  And all form factors: huge touch screens to netbooks.  I’m not sure how well they are priced, but the 13” Adamo was listed there at $1400.  Based on the sales figures I heard from one employee on the first day laptop sales, they were clipping along really well – people are actually buying stuff there!  I couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked like the machines purchased in the store were decrapified.  At least on the Dell’s I messed around with, the typical crapware was not installed – could have been a demo station thing, not sure and I didn’t ask.  The presentation of the machines and Windows 7 was well done though.

What amazed me was the conversations being had.  I heard more times from customers Oh, I didn’t know that.  The employees I saw engaging weren’t stumped.  These were very well prepared employees from what I could tell, accurate in information and confident in their replies to customers.  Solid.

Microsoft Store SurfaceSurface was a clear hit in the store.  There were four of them that I could tell, two “standard” ones that you see everywhere and 2 that were encased in a nicer presentation and at chest/bar level.  Perhaps this was so that adults could actually get a use on them.  The two others had a constant flux of kids in them playing the games (they were loaded up with all the demos in the world).  Seeing people interact with Surface was pretty cool – very little instruction needed other than “it’s a touch machine” – and people seemed to find it very intuitive.

There was also an “answer bar” in the back.  Yes, mock if you will the familiarity with the Apple genius bar.  Who cares, it’s the right thing to do.  There was a screen showing the appointments upcoming and it was pretty active.  I even saw someone bring in their XBOX for the red-rings-of-death fix.  Heck that alone could make the stores valuable :-).  Most people were there to understand Windows XP upgrades to Windows 7 it looked like to me.  Behind the answer bar there was also a room dedicated to instruction. 

Microsoft Store learning Microsoft Store Answer Bar

A huge screen with seating so regularly scheduled classes could be given to anyone who wishes.  For the Scottsdale store, you can find the upcoming lists on the web site for the Microsoft Store.  They have things ranging from exploring Windows 7, to getting in depth with Zune and understanding Office better.  I think this will be an essential asset for the store and Microsoft and the stores should be marketing the heck out of these learning sessions.  Everywhere.

Some cool facts?  Tons of WPF applications :-).  The wall that surrounds the entire store (which is very cool and really makes the store) is a WPF application.  One of the developers reached out to me a while back to let me know about it.  It’s pretty cool.  Also is some of the product choice helper application kiosk that are in some places (touch based of course).

Microsoft Store wall

Overall, a great experience and changed my mind.  The staff is well trained, the products are presented well and people are entering in the store.  I thought Scottsdale was an odd place for the store (it is in between a Tiffany & Co. and a Barneys) given the (yes I’m stereotyping) typical Scottsdale Fashion Square crowd.  We’ll see if that crowd levels continue through the holidays. 

The one thing that I think they are missing out on for geeks is a better name for their free WiFi.  I love how Apple brands their WiFi essentially.  Microsoft’s? RETAILGUEST.  Now anyone who has been to a Microsoft conference before will know that’s typical IT naming for us, but it misses a simple, subtle brand opportunity.  How about Microsoft Store?!?!

I think the store opening so far has been a success in sales and perception.  To me, the perception is key.  Having so many people having aha moments in the store should certainly help change their knowledge of Microsoft products and dispel some myths being portrayed.  The engaging, friendly and knowledgeable staff will only help things.  I wish that I’d seen a living room setup so that Media Center/XBOX had a better showing.  I think that is one product that isn’t out there in the consumer space enough.  And since I’ve moved completely to Media Center for my TV, having a setup showing things like the HD HomeRun and Windows Media Center with XBOX as an extender could go a long way I think.  It was energizing to see the store and how it was doing.  I wish it the best of luck!  The Mission Viejo store will be opening this week (29-Oct).

Oh yeah, and not a single BSOD in the the entire store :-).

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