Apple Picking? Microsoft Stores Evoke the Apple Look

PHOTO: Apple polishing: Microsofts store in Puerto Rico is their first outside the U.S.
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Coming soon to a neighborhood near you: a store that looks, smells and feels like an Apple store, but that belongs to Microsoft.

So sleek are these new emporiums, so jolly and helpful their young staff, that Steve Jobs himself, were he to return to life, would have to pinch himself not to believe he was standing in one of his own creations.

Legendary is the success of Apple's stores. On a per-square-foot basis, says Morningstar analyst Norman Young, who follows Microsoft, Apple stores ring up sales higher than those of any other retailer in the world, having displaced jewelers for that title.

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Young calls Microsoft's stores very similar, stylistically, to Apple's.

"They did kind of crib the look and feel," he allows, while hesitating to come right out and call them copies. "Let's just call them one-off derivatives."

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The similarities are hard to miss: Like Apple's stores, Microsoft's have an open floor plan, minimalist aesthetic, high ceilings and big windows. Their eager, friendly, T-shirted salesfolk wear lanyards around their necks. Electronic goodies sit temptingly atop wooden tables -- dark wood in this case, not the blonde that Apple favors (a rare departure from the Apple palette).

A December report by SNL Kagan Media & Communications called this setting one that "appears designed to trick the near-sighted into thinking they're in an Apple store."

Slate Magazine, noting the resemblance, sniffed that "seeing the two stores side by side (makes) team Redmond look a bit pathetic" in the slavishness of their imitation. Young supposes that some people, when they see the stores side by side, probably think: "Gosh, there's another Microsoft knock-off."

A California man who has visited one of the stores was unimpressed.

"It was like a bad dream of an Apple store, in that there were all sorts of eager, bright shiny salespeople wearing Microsoft T-shirts, trying to be ultra helpful and groovy at the same time. Didn't work," the Bay Area financial services professional said, asking not to be named.

But Slate gives Microsoft's stores credit for being fun places to shop. Its reporter, when he visited the Palo Alto, Calif., store at lunchtime on a Friday in December, found it bustling, its Xbox area (a consistent feature of every Microsoft store) mobbed with kids trying out the gaming stations.

Slate approves that, like Apple's stores, Microsoft's offer free-tech support. And they have what amounts to a Genius Bar (here called an Answers Desk) offering personalized, one-on-one absolution for the technologically challenged.

According to Mashable.com, Apple's 390 stores around the world get about 300 million visitors a year.

Microsoft, according to a company spokeswoman, now has 64 stores, including 31 permanent retail locations plus 33 pop-ups. In calendar year 2012, she says, the company opened its first stores outside the United States, including ones in Vancouver and Toronto. Collectively, Microsoft's stores, she says, have welcomed 22 million customers. The product mix includes Windows 8 PCs, tablets, Windows Phones, Kinect for Xbox 360, Office 365 and more, she told ABC News.

Regarding future expansion, she says, while no target number of stores has been set, a "host of locations" are now under consideration.

The spokeswoman didn't deny the superficial similarities between Apple and Microsoft stores.

PC Magazine predicts that Microsoft, within the decade, will have a minimum of 300 stores, and that it will do as well as Apple.

How well they're doing now is hard to say because Microsoft does not break out the stores' revenue.

Anecdotal accounts of foot traffic have been mixed. On Black Friday, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster reported that a head count of consumers shopping the Mall of America in Minneapolis showed the Microsoft store to be generating 47 percent less foot traffic than the Apple store.

On the other hand, Morningstar analyst Young told ABC News, he found Microsoft's Boston store fairly busy on his visits there. He asked a salesperson about business: "The guy said he had been selling a tablet every shift." Young calls that "good, not great."

Making sales, however, might not be Microsoft's chief objective with the stores, Young speculates. They're a great environment, he believes, for consumer education: In them, Microsoft can show consumers hands-on, in a "low-stress environment with no pressure to buy," how to get the most out of its products.

Microsoft can show other retailers how it wants its merchandise displayed.

And it can get a more meaningful kind of customer feedback, Young thinks, than it could get from focus groups. In the stores, customers aren't just offering their opinions of Microsoft's products, they're voting (or not) with their money.

Microsoft, Young notes, has announced its intent to manufacture more its own hardware in the future, which would add to the stores' value.

In the past, Young says, Microsoft left marketing and display to third parties: Best Buy, Costco and Walmart, for example.

In the future, he predicts, the company will want to exercise more control over how its wares are sold. "I suspect the stores are not necessarily meant to be money-makers," he says. "They're a marketing expense."

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