business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

I drove over to Bellevue, Washington, from Seattle the other day, because I wanted to see one of the new Microsoft stores.  I’d been hoping to visit the new one scheduled to open in University Village this week, but I was a couple of days early, and so had to settle for the one that has been open for more than a year in the Bellevue Square Mall.

When I found it, I was impressed.  Lots of glass, flat tables with products to play with, tablet computers, smart phones, computers, the whole shooting match.  Even a counter in the back to get expert help, and enthusiastic employees in t-shirts ready to help the customers.  It looked very familiar - like the only thing it was missing was the image of an apple with a bite taken out of it.

Except for the fact that there were hardly any customers, it would have been perfect. (See pictures above.)  Instead of being a hub of activity, it was instead cavernous.  I actually sort of felt bad for the folks working there.  They just seemed...lonely.

When I left the Microsoft Store, I noticed that just a few stores down, there was a line.  I didn’t know for what, but I decided to check.

Go figure.  It was an Apple Store.  (I am not being disingenuous here.  I hadn’t noticed on the mall map that there was an Apple Store nearby.)

There was a line of 10, 12 people, waiting to get in to buy the new iPhone 4S.  Inside the store - which is one of the smallest Apple Stores I’ve seen in a while, perhaps one third the size of the nearby Microsoft Store - it was crowded with activity.  So crowded, in fact, that some of the Genius Bar personnel seem to have commandeered tables and chairs at a nearby cafe and were helping customers there.

(See pictures below, taken just 60 seconds after the pictures of the Microsoft Store were taken.)

Now, I want to be fair about this.

Apple has the new iPhone 4S, which is selling like gangbusters.  That accounts for the line, and at least some of the crowding inside the store.

Microsoft didn’t have that sort of new product on the day I visited, so it was working at a disadvantage.  Plus, coverage of the opening of the new Microsoft Store in University Village later in the week suggests that there were plenty of crowds in attendance.  So it isn’t like Microsoft can’t attract a crowd.

For the purposes of this discussion, I don’t even want to entertain the notion that Microsoft suffers because Apple has managed to corner the market on cool, innovative, user-friendly technology.  That may be the case, but it most likely isn’t forever, and besides, it reflects my pro-Apple bias.  So let’s get past that.

Here’s what I was thinking as I gazed at the two stores...

If Microsoft had come to me several years ago and asked me how best to create a retail environment that could compete with Apple’s growing fleet of stores, I have no idea what I would have suggested.

But I’m pretty sure that I would have recommended that it not build what the company eventually built - simply because it looks pure and simple like a “me, too” offering.

It does not look like the designer had an original thought - except maybe for darker table tops and a place for leather lounge chairs near the X-Box display, for which there is plenty of room because of the lack of customers.

Again, I have no idea what alternative I would have suggested.  But it is hard for me to imagine that a savvy store design expert could not have come up with something that is not so clearly derivative.

To me, this was an Eye-Opener.  You have one of the most successful companies on the planet, one that has created technological products that have helped to change the world, and the best it could do to tell its story is create a clone.  Instead of inspiring me to switch to Microsoft products, it simply made me yearn for the real thing by finding an Apple Store.

Microsoft hardly is alone in such an approach.  True originality, just like real innovation, is uncommon.

But I’ve rarely seen such a clear case of a company going for a secondhand solution when it should have been reaching for new heights.

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