Microsoft store exists only behind closed doors


REC offers a model to improve shopping experience for customers

To the frustration of some of its fans, Microsoft Corp. has consistently said it will not open any flagship stores.

But in a Redmond warehouse, marked only with the initials "REC" on its doors, Microsoft has built a multimillion-dollar model of what a hypothetical Microsoft store could look like.

The construction is exact. There are listed hours on the automatic sliding doors, a break room complete with lockers, and prices attached to the various Xboxes, mice and Windows Vista-powered personal computers.

The concept store, which Microsoft calls the Retail Experience Center, has two goals: Showcase various displays that retailers and computer makers can replicate, and demonstrate how Microsoft technology can work in a store environment.

Construction started in March and the 20,000-square-foot facility opened within six months. Already, many major retailers have toured it.

For too long, said Bill Brownell, Microsoft's general manager of worldwide retail services, Microsoft allowed retailers and computer makers to control how PCs running Microsoft software are displayed.

"We're not planning to open stores, but we need to learn more about stores," he said. "We need to take more of a leadership role."

"Retailers have lost their way," said Parisa Zander, Microsoft's director of worldwide merchandising, store design and the Retail Experience Center.

Zander said many retailers still display PCs in a way that makes customers feel like thieves. Bars with locks are placed across keyboards, making it difficult for customers to pick up computers. The PCs are put on unattractive metal or carpeted shelving. And they often are placed at the wrong height level.

In order to make a compelling case for change, the various bold displays at the Retail Experience Center have gone through various focus groups.

"It's not just (that) we think so," Brownell said.

So, for instance, Microsoft has grappled with questions such as how to best sort and display PCs on the floor of a store. By price? By screen size? By model?

Microsoft routinely sets focus groups loose in the store, asking them what they would buy and why.

For retailers, Microsoft has a set of displays that they can duplicate or customize, with Microsoft's help.

"If they want to follow the whole Windows look, they can," Brownell said.

The "whole Windows look," which is set up in the center of the Retail Experience Center, includes light faux-wood tables, grand arches (to conjure windows) and yellow lamps with the Windows logo embedded in them.

But retailers also can use simpler solutions.

"You don't have to use the exact model, but the fundamentals," Brownell said. "You can do little things."

So, there are several options in a corner.

First, to give retailers a sense of what not to do, Microsoft has re-created an actual display from an unnamed U.S. store.

It includes several turned-off PCs on carpeted shelves, surrounded with accessories -- CD packs, computer bags, software. It all competes for the shopper's attention.

An alternate approach on display: Activate the PCs and add only "key" items around them, such as packages of the Vista operating system, Microsoft Office or CDs.

Or, put in some fake wood lining below the PCs. Or not only put in the fake wood lining, but also put simple frames around each of the PCs on display.

Microsoft does not own stores nor does it sell PCs, so it can't completely dictate how computer makers sell their wares or how retailers present them.

"A few want their own way," Brownell said. Mostly, though, he said, there "has been a huge amount of support."

Microsoft, he said, had made other moves to get closer to the stores where its products are sold. The company has put 150 "gurus" in shops across the U.S. to give demonstrations and answer questions about PCs as well as Microsoft products.

And, in fact, the "break room" in the Retail Experience Center exists to show how Microsoft "gurus" can build relationships with store personnel, by giving away free Microsoft paraphernalia as well as pizza.

An online site displayed on a big screen there also shows how store personnel can get free Microsoft wares if they take the time to learn a little more about Microsoft products online.

The back end of the Retail Experience Center is run by Microsoft technology that any store can adopt.

Microsoft technology, for instance, ensures that it is easy to power off and power on the 100- plus PCs in the center, said Tim Gruver, the worldwide director, retail technology strategy, at Microsoft.

And many items feature Tag, a bar code scanning technology that Microsoft released two weeks ago at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Tag allows customers to scan a colorful bar code -- called a "Tag" -- with their cell phones to look up more information about a product (Gruver said that one "very, very large" retailer was planning a prototype of scavenger hunts using Tag in some stores).

Even though it's Microsoft's showroom, there are signs of its rival.

In a room to the side, Microsoft has re-created a bit of an Apple store.

Brownell would not say much about it.

"We play with our competitor," he said.


No comments: