The grand open of the second Microsoft retail store in Mission Viejo (S. Calif.) on Thursday was attended by a throng of screaming teenage girls attracted by a pop singer, Microsoft executives in business suits and and a group of adults who were curious about what the store would look like. The company used a Justin Bieber concert as the cornerstone of their buzz campaign, a strategy that may have cost local schools district of thousands of dollars in state funding because eager teens skipped school to wait in line for concert tickets. What everyone saw when the white curtain came down in front of the store was a brightly-lit retail space with all the appearance of expense and quality, but actually composed of white paint, cheap wood and enough similarities to the Apple stores for any objective judge to rule the store is a “rip off.”
While all the excitement was focused on the Microsoft store, just 360 feet away the Apple store was closed, and covered with a black construction barricade. The store is undergoing a major remodel, bringing it up to 2009 standards. The store opened in February 2004.
About 70 persons waited overnight in line outside the store overnight. They were let inside about 7:30 a.m., and the crowd grew slowly to about 280 by the time Microsoft COO Kevin Turner cut the red ribbon at 10 a.m. After the store opened, the line remained at about 250 for the next hour, as visitors entered the store and new visitors joined the line. By 10:15 a.m. the line began to grow shorter, and at exactly 10:49 a.m. no more people were in line.
The store itself is 60 feet wide, and the storefront is all-glass, providing an inviting view to the inside. The store is only 60 feet deep, so the interior doesn’t feel expansive. Wood floors and tables, bright ceiling panels and scores of laptops greet visitors when they come inside. Most conspicuous from any angle are the 120 47-inch video displays that line the two side walls. Sometimes the displays show a single image over the entire length of the displays, while at other times they show independent images.
The store is organized into four areas, although it’s not completely obvious to visitors. Within each area there is a Microsoft Surface device for visitor exploration. Display tables are organized into rows front-to-back. Display counters run along the side walls from front to almost-back. At the rear of the store are small product displays, including software, burn-to-order software, Xbox and computer carrying cases.
Also at the back of the store is the “Answers” counter, and behind that is a theater area with sit-down counters for training. A short table with laptops at the back is intended for exploration by children.
The tables are medium-tone blond wood, topped with a dark-brown, textured material. Some tables have receipt printers attached underneath, while others have shopping bag dispensers.
The side display counters are dark-brown and curve in-and-out as they run the depth of the store. Shorter stools are placed at various intervals.
A floor-to-ceiling, double-glass panel is positioned directly behind the Answers counter, providing some isolation for the training area. Raised sign letters on the glass indicate the “Answers” counter location, but the color of the letters blends in with the background, making the wording almost invisible.
Curvy white acrylics were located next to each displayh laptop to hold information cards—no desktops here. Some other product displays appeared to be made of dark grained wood, including a Windows 7 box holder.
The stools are made of the same mid-tone blond wood as the tables. They have a square seat with a cut-out hole for handling the stool. The children’s table had similar, very short seats.
The Wait & Opening
The waiting line began at the mall entrance at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, by a woman over 30 years-old who said she was saving a place for her daughter. However, she did express some curiousity for the Microsoft store herself. Several teen girls made up the next 10 to 15 positions, followed by a mixed group of 30-ish men, fathers, more teens and mothers. All were wrapped in blankets or snuggled into sleeping bags to protect against the low-50s cold.
The line reached 60 persons at about 10:30 p.m., and grew to 75 by midnight. The line snaked past the three portable toilets brought in for the occasion, and stayed at 75 until about 5:30 a.m., when more persons began to slowly arrive.
At least one person from the waiting line reported receiving a Zune from Microsoft. It’s not clear if anyone received such a gift. At 11 p.m., Microsoft came outside and handed out free copies of Windows 7 to those in line, which numbered about 75 at that point.
Once inside the warmer mall, some in the waiting line sat down again and tried to nap, while others stood. Microsoft employees came around pulling Red Flyer wagons loaded with Clif Bars and bottled water. There was some chanting from inside the store, but a white cloth blocked any view of the activity.
During the wait, stores employee threw and handed out white T-shirts with the retail logo on the front and “Microsoft Store” written on the back. All the while they were trying to pump up the crowd for the opening. After the store opened, they were handing out black “Bing” T-shirts to visitors inside the store.
As the 10 a.m. opening time approached, up to 50 Microsoft employees in suits or casual business attire began lining up across from the store. They wore “ALL ACCESS” badges on lanyards or clipped to their clothing, took pictures and shook hands with each other. Some of the employees already had the small shopping bags that Microsoft later handed out to hold the concert ticket wristbands.
Among those spoted in front were Michael Forrest, a former Apple store manager, and George Blankenship, former V-P Retail Real Estate. Forrest is now Microsoft’s Sr. Director of Customer Experience, while Blankenship reportedly is a paid consultant for Microsoft.
Just before 10 a.m. Kevin Turner appeared in front of the store with 10 to 15 other executives in business suits. He thanked the crowd and community, acknowledged Mission Viejo mayor Frank Ury, and said Microsoft was into retail “for the long haul.”
He then made the second in a round of donations to the YMCA of Orange County and Goodwill Industries. At the Scottsdale (Ariz.) store opening last week, he made similar donations to those organizations there.
In this case, Microsoft gave $50,000 in cash and $1 million in software to the YMCA, and gave $50,000 in cash and $500,000 to Goodwill.
Just before Turner cut the red ribbon, there were about 280 persons in line, with perhaps another 200 spectators in front of the store. Local press reports of “more than 1,000 people” in front of the store waiting for the opening were inaccurate.
While the Microsoft stores may resemble the existing Apple stores in some measure, they lack an element that has been a critical for establishing Apple’s brand—quality. For every architectural element that Microsoft has duplicated from Apple’s stores, they have failed to copy the materials, craftsmanship and pride that go with them.
The similarities of the Microsoft store to what Apple has already accomplish is remarkable. The general layout of the store, the storefront, the lighting, floor and product displays are common between the two companies. Beyond that, there are extraordinary similarities: the employee name tags and their lanyards, the under-table bag dispensers and receipt printers, the Answers counter and its configuration, the use of mobile computers for POS, the children’s table, and the identical nature of Microsoft’s store services: extended warranty, personal shopping and training. Microsoft even has an on-line reservation system for its in-store service and training.
One architectural difference is obvious: a line of support columns interrupts the interior, running from front-to-back just left of the centerline of the store. Such an interruption is something that Apple’s architects would not tolerate.
In a world where retail design has become a profession and industry, it’s difficult to understand how an independent retail designer could have arrived at the same store solution as Apple. In fact, thousands of retailers have sought out ways to distinguish themselves from competitors, hiring experts to design unique methods of displaying and selling their products. In this case, Microsoft’s solution appears to be Apple’s, too.
But despite the appearance, the depth is missing. There is no bead-blasted stainless steel on the storefront, only white-painted wallboard and glass. And that glass isn’t the expensive low-iron variety Apple uses to insure passersby see the store, not the glass.
There is no Italian stone or rich wood on the floor. The walls and ceiling are simply white-painted wood. The wood of the floor appears to be laminate, and wood on display tables and stools looks common and dull.
Does all this make a difference to the store visitor? It must, because retailers are willing to pay millions of dollars to create stores with distinction and quality, reflecting their brand.
The employees do use an advanced Samsung ultra-portable computer for point-of-sale duties (the Q1EX-71G?). The device is rather large when combined with a credit card reader. Staffers use a mini-sized Opticon barcode reader, linked to the Samsung with Bluetooth, and tethered to the employee by a retractable key-fob device.
The Surface devices are very interesting, but their abilities are not intuitive. The laptops are hooked up to the Internet for exploration, and the Xbox area is live with large-screen displays for playing.
Because the store was very crowded, it was impossible to determine if the store lay-out was optimum, and if customers can efficiently move throughout the store.
In the end, the store itself isn’t remarkable, and Microsoft is left mostly to sell and support hardware made by someone else.
This Attraction Cost Money
Despite the the $1,600,000 that Microsoft donated to community groups, the grand opening may have taken a bite out of the budgets of local school districts.
Microsoft handed out concert wristbands to the first 1,000 people who requested them at a back counter. By noon, employees were still handing out wristbands to mothers, grandmothers, some fathers and teens who asked for them. Two girls in the waiting line wore pink T-shirts they had customized with words to express their devotion to Bieber (pictured), including “#1 Fan” and “I (heart) Justin Bieber.” One girl hugged a pink binder decorated with cut-out magazine photos of Bieber.
During the pre-opening 3-1/2 hour wait, the store staff appeared in front of the store, at times dancing or leading the crowd in chants. As the opening grew nearer, television news videographers arrived. At one point a Microsoft employee teased an otherwise quiet group of teenage girls standing to the left of the door into screaming so the cameraman could tape their inauthentic excitement for the store.
There were many adults present who were simply there to obtain concert tickets for their child or grandchild.
However, several teens admitted to skipping school for the day to obtain the tickets and attend the 5 p.m. concert. Their absence at school could have cost the school district thousands of dollars.
California funding for local public schools includes a calculation of each student’s average daily attendance over the school year. Students with perfect attendance generate full payments from the state. Student who are absent reduce state payments by a percentage. For very large districts, even a five percent annual absence rate can substantially impact total funding, sometimes cutting tens of millions from the state funds.
The Saddleback Valley Unified School District, where Mission Viejo children attend school, receives about $5,300 per student in annual funding, according to district records. Based on those figures, each one-day absence by a student costs the district about $30 in state funding. In this case, if 300 students skipped school to obtain Bieber concert tickets, the school district would have lost $9,000 in state funds.
When examined in detail, the Apple and Microsoft stores share many similarities. How could independent minds arrive at the same solution? On IFO’s zero to 100 scale of “Identicality,” the Microsoft stores score 97.
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