What Microsoft Can Learn About Retail from Apple and Best Buy

Wasted space on front of Best Buy Now that Microsoft has decided to open up its own retail stores, they need some help from all of us in building a great retail experience. Remember, this isn't Microsoft's first time. Microsoft used to have a store at San Francisco's Metreon but that was a good example of what to do wrong. Here's some things they did wrong on that effort:

1. They picked a crappy location with very little foot traffic. Apple, on the other hand, has a huge store near the Metreon that gets easily 200x the foot traffic that went by Microsoft's old store (which was inside the Metreon, so didn't have a street presence, and worse of all, was upstairs).

2. It just had a lot of boxes and products. It didn't use aspirational techniques. Apple, when you walk in, has signage that tells you that if you had a Mac you could do better podcasts or better photos or better videos. That's aspirational. It helps people aspire to do something better. Microsoft needs to tap into that big time and is getting close when it does ads like this one with a four-year-old girl.

Apple store, NYC, 5th Ave.3. Microsoft, in its first effort, didn't pay attention to deep aesthetics. Everything in an Apple store has been thought out. Everytime I go there I notice the desks which have huge slabs of wood that FEEL good to touch. Other retail stores don't pay attention to this stuff. Next time you're in an Apple store look at the tiles they use for flooring (here's my photo of the NY Apple store). Now compare to what you find at, say, Best Buy.

4. Microsoft didn't make it comfortable (or useful) for people to visit. Apple has free wifi and never complains when I sit on a machine for hours playing around. 

5. Microsoft didn't make the experience magical. Nordstroms, for instance, has a piano playing in the middle and I can get a latte and then go shoe shopping. They've worked on adding something extra to the process of buying shoes. The old Microsoft store didn't have that extra element.

So, what about today? What can we learn about Best Buy and Apple and use that to give Microsoft some good advice?

I visit Best Buy stores often and I gotta admit that experience leaves me wanting. Here's why:

Too many TVs at Best Buy1. When I worked retail (I helped run a high volume discount consumer electronics store in Silicon Valley in the 1980s) I learned that your sales go up when you take customers through a sales process. One that's consultative. That doesn't give too many choices. And one that asks lots of questions. I'd start out by learning what they were looking for "I'm looking to buy a camera." Then I'd start firing the questions, things like "big and pro or small and easy to carry around?" If they said small, I'd ask "are you looking for the best, or are you looking to fit into a certain budget?" I'd keep asking questions until there was only one obvious choice left. Now, visit a BestBuy store. I have. Too many choices. The signage doesn't take you through that sales process very well. If I were Microsoft I'd think hard about that sales process and I'd think about how to get people to see one obvious choice. Microsoft has its work cut out here, though. It offers too many versions of its Windows operating system, for instance. That introduces confusion, especially when compared to Apple, which only has one (I just bought an upgrade for one of my Macs and the whole sales process took literally 30 seconds, where at Microsoft I'd have to decide between a bunch of different versions like "home" or "ultimate." I learned early on that if people have too many things to choose from they get confused and leave the store without buying.

Look at Best Buy's HDTV display, photo above, now tell me what the sales process is. I couldn't find one at all. Nothing about "this is the screen for football fanatics" or "this is the screen if you want to have a great picture for a low price." Nothing at all. Gotta talk to a salesperson, which now is hard to find.

2. Microsoft has to build an integral and magical experience. When you go to Disneyland everything fits together and attention was paid to every element of a guest's experience. Same thing here. If I were Microsoft's designers I'd start with the bathrooms. Why? That's one  place that Apple hasn't spent much time (they often are dirty, don't use any technology, and don't match the rest of the store in the experience). Make the bathroom experience magical, then work backward out into the store. Make every experience something you can't do at any other store.

3. Decide whether you're going to have an employee-heavy approach or not and stick to it. Inside an Apple store there's usually an employee for every three people inside the store. That's pretty heavy because at most of its stores you'll find 50 to 200 customers in the store at the same time. Compare that to, say, Walmart or IKEA, which might only have one employee for 100 customers. Both approaches are great, but will totally affect all your signage and decisions for how you'll setup the store. Don't be confused about this and stick to it. Personally, since technology is something that's confusing where buying a jar of pickles at Walmart or Costco isn't, I would recommend going with an employee-heavy approach. You need to think out every interaction a customer is going to need and want and have an employee there to take care of those needs. Best Buy is an example of getting it wrong. There aren't enough employees around when I visit their stores, especially given the lack of information on many of its product displays, the confusing array of products, and the lack of a sales process that it pushes them to a purchase decision. Microsoft can't make that mistake.

Confusing tags at Best Buy4. Assume that everyone who walks in the store is online and make sure the online and offline experience are totally joined. Apple gets this pretty close to perfect. The sales help even use the online site to order me product that'll be shipped to my house, and use it to show me choices that are out there. They don't shy away from it. Microsoft should go further and use its tag system so that I can aim my cell phone at a product display card and get more information, including where I can get the best price on that item online. I learned that when I told my customers everyone else's prices (they went and checked out if I was accurate or not) that they often came back and bought from me because I was authoritative on the marketplace. Microsoft needs to do the same thing: assume everyone will check out everything you say online. I would build an aggregation of all stores online — show what people said about each product on, say, Amazon. Show what it's selling for on eBay. Demonstrate that you can beat BH Photo's pricing. 

Look above at how ugly Best Buy's product displays are. They also don't tell you what's really important in a human way. Why don't they have the store manager put a little quote on each product? Something like "this camera is the best one to both fit in your pocket and make YouTube videos?" They totally miss that this is the greatest video camera invented in the past five years because it is the easiest way to make YouTube videos.

5. Have better service than anyone in the business. At Fry's it's often hard to find someone who speaks English or understands the products well. You have got to be better than that. That means paying people more than minimum wage so that they stick around and show some loyalty to working for you. Then train, train, train, train them on everything. At my store I met almost every morning with factory reps to learn the products and hear from them what made them special. I did tons of research, going out and using the products, including taking home expensive speaker systems and camera gear. That translated into much better product knowledge than my competitors had. Microsoft needs to do that. But it also needs to build a world-class service desk. Apple calls that their "genius bar" and they have always been very good with me. Just two weeks ago they tore into a Mac that was giving me troubles and found a RAM chip that was going bad. Replaced it no charge and got my Mac running again. I've seen this happen with my son, too. His iPhone battery was going dead in an hour. They handed him a new one and didn't ask to see his parents. Magical service brings you customers.

6. Use the signage outside the store to do something. Apple does this. Walk by a store and you'll see a URL in the window, along with a professionally-done display that changes with each new season or product that comes out. Now compare that to BestBuy. The front of this BestBuy store is seen by hundreds of thousands of people every day driving down Silicon Valley's 101 freeway. Why doesn't it have a sign on it that includes a URL? A call to action "come in and check out the new big screens." It's wasted space. When I hung a new sign in my store's window sales went up 30%. This stuff is important.

7. Copy Apple and get rid of checkout lines. I hate standing in line at BestBuy. In fact I've walked out more than once leaving my purchase right there. That's lame. Apple's employees walk around with little computers in their hands. They ring you up right there without making you stand in line. They email me my receipt. Forcing paper on customers is totally lame, especially in this time where we're supposed to be conserving paper.

Sign in Apple's San Francisco store8. Focus on the lifestyle, not the products. That will turn customers into long-term brand evangelists rather than people who just "buy Windows" or "get an Xbox." Microsoft's strength is in its range of products, so focus on that and get rid of the "move boxes" mentality. Of course, Microsoft better nail this because Apple is already thinking along these lines in a redesign of its stores. My photo of a sign inside an Apple store a couple of years ago shows that it is the computer for the blogging and podcasting lifestyle (this was before most people knew what those were).

9. Figure out a way to get people to see the possibilities of new online services. Symantec, for instance, is moving toward online services and away from selling retail boxes. Apple figured this out with its iPhone application store. Apple is rubbing that in at the retail level too. The store I just visited two days ago had a huge display in its front window about all the cool apps you could get on your iPhone.

10. Find a way to not look like Microsoft. Microsoft is a huge, global company. Try to make the store feel like a small-town technology store with a friendly proprietor who was looking out for you because he wanted you to come back. I'm not sure how I'd do that, but it would be one of my core philosophies as I designed every element: try NOT to look big, but instead play up the small. Oh, an example is Applebees restaurants. The one I go to in San Jose has pictures of the local high school and college coaches and sports teams hanging in it. That's an example of designing for the local market and keeping a "small town" feel.

11. Visit the computer marts in Shenzhen, China and Tokyo, Japan. Take away what makes them interesting (wide variety of choices) but get rid of what makes them a nasty experience (the clutter, dirt, lack of sales process, and too much hustle). I love that I can go to one of these stores, or the Fry's locally, and get components to build my own hardware prototype.

12. Make your customers and employees smarter. At Apple's San Francisco store they have a theater where an employee or someone from the community is constantly giving talks on something. Learn to edit videos. Learn to make better photos. Learn to design a blog. Etc. Etc. Apple works at making its customers smarter. That turns into evangelistic behavior later when those customers show their friends their cool photos, blogs, Facebook pages, etc.

Too many camcorders at Best Buy13. Again, focus on EVERY aesthetic. Compare how Apple hooks cameras to its tables vs. how Best Buy does it. Which one makes you feel better? Which one has a magical experience? Apple is KILLING Best Buy in this area. Look at the photo above, now compare to Apple's stores' displays.

Well, I've rambled on enough. What about you? What would you do to make going into a Microsoft store a magical  experience?

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  • Jason Goldberg

    Good article, as per usual. But it seems you only focus on the negative learnings at Best Buy and the positive learnings at Apple. Surely, Apple isn't perfect and Best Buy a total failure?

    Best Buy has developed a store model that allows for self-service shoppers to have a reasonably good experience. That's important for a company operating 1000+ stores in North America, with no hope of hiring 100,000 motivated, intelligent, and perfectly trained blue shirts every year.

    Apple chosen a much more sales assisted model that relies on great in store labor. It's a great model as long as you can sustain the labor force. I've visited many Apple stores that were a victim of their own success, where I couldn't get access to an employee and as a result couldn't buy anything and had a horrible experience.

    Personaly, I think that are so many ways to improve the shopping experience that NO ONE is doing, that I wouldn't focus too much on what either of these companies are doing. Here were some of my ideas: http://retailgeek.com/2009/03/...

  • Shaun Noon

    Apple is a great model of how to "create" your market as well as design to it. Innovation and Education.

  • Nicola Evoli

    It is a remarkable note and very inspirational, once again we need to turn to the customer and not to products as focus of retail design.

  • Donna Clark

    In my opinion, the only reason Apple products are available @ Best Buy is foot traffic. Apple is smart enough to know if you build it, they will come. Apple is the draw....not customer service @ Best Buy. Best Buy is the place I go when I can't get what I need online, or the item is on sale. I have experienced some of the WORST service on the planet and will beg my husband to go and purchase "x"....if they even have it in stock. THEY ARE RUDE, NASTY, UNHAPPY PEOPLE. Even the people who run the Apple "store" at my local BB are jerks. They act like they are doing u a favor selling u something. (Thousand Oaks, California)The smartest thing Microsoft could do with their retail stores is make them Apple stores. ;)

  • Robert Johnson

    If they are going to do anything that is remotely different from Apple, I think they need to make the store look like their visitor center. You can see pictures here: http://www.istartedsomething.c.... The XBOX area is amazing. I like the colored walls and how all the phones and computers are arranged. Also has a lounge feel. If they don't do this, I am sure they will fail. If it does not look like this I will probably not be interested in going to it.

  • Kris Fuehr

    2 things MS can learn:
    1 - Don't mess up the channel groove - Make sure that you're not underpricing other VARs and retailers even during promos. (I'm sure they've thought of this.)
    2-Most of the REALLY exciting things you can do with MS products are through the ISVs who build stuff on top of the platform. Give a little corner of "3rd Party Personal Productivity Apps" in the store that are really the buzz. It will keep the store fresh between launches and demonstrate MS' commitment to "enabling others". I hope they do well with this effort.

  • Mergen Chuluun

    Nice idea on the bathroom. Why not do something like a Windows-powered bathroom? Wow, that will create an enormous of attention and traffic. For the $5,000 or so spent to power the bathroom with Windows, MS could easily get $100,000's worth of advertisement free.

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  • Mohamed Amer

    The above are excellent suggestions that Microsoft needs to seriously consider for its retail venture. Whatever they do decide, it needs to be consistent across every customer touch point - web or store - and enable them to build a community. Also Microsoft can't go after a highly efficient, volume-driven supply chain model pushing units out the door AND a high touch store/web interactively rich shopper experience. Very difficult and expensive to pull off, and highly contradictory to execute at store level. If they go for the former, they'll be going against Best Buy and mass merchants; while the latter pits them against primarily Apple. Now, the real question (and follow-on ones): why is Microsoft going after retail and why now? Is this a new growth strategy? What's the net effect on their margins? Is Microsoft capable of listening to shoppers and using that feedback to improve the experience and products? Can a Wal-Mart veteran steeped in centralized command & control efficiency model create and lead in a very dynamic shopper-centric retail environment? For Microsoft, there may be easier ways to grow and protect margins than getting into retail.

    Thanks. Mohamed. http://twitter.com/bizuser

  • David Spark

    This is a great piece, and fantastic advice for anyone in retail. Retail is simply a juggling act that never stops. There are so many moving parts and if one ball drops then it can ruin the entire show. The fact that Circuit City closed was a surprise to absolutely no one. How do you keep intelligent helpful people when you cut their pay?

    I do believe though that the reason Microsoft is doing this is because they're trying to improve communications with its customer and potential customer base. The company needs a new friendly face. The hope is the stores will deliver that.

    For more about making connections at Microsoft’s retail stores: http://www.sparkminute.com/?p=...

  • steven barchetti

    Microsoft has a ton of talented people but they really have to step up and grasp the whole user experience concept. Every business owner has to step up to the bar that companies like apple have set! Because of the digital arena we now live in, companies will vanish over night if they don't get this stuff!

    With the click of a mouse entire communities will change brands!

    Steven Barchetti


  • john nugent

    Robert I'm a fan....but...You missed this one. My Best Buy uses Blue Shirts to walk a customer through their purchase. I think we have proven our business model works. We are still expanding, taking market share, and have have cash in the bank. Yes labor is tight right now, but our focus is still customer service. Apple chose to enter most Best Buy stores! Why....we must be doing something right? And you should see the things we have planned or implemented in relation to the web and how it works with Brick and Mortar stores. Microsoft should stay in software period.

  • Kontra Kontra

    The only fiscally sane thing for MSFT to do is to abandon practically all competitive consumer markets where its Windows/Office monopoly cannot be effectively leveraged, as we explained over a year ago:

    Consumer markets: Time for Microsoft to exit?

  • Roslyn Sanchez

    Some good comments, especially about the offline/online experience.

    That said, comparing Apple and Best Buy or Walmart a bit deceptive. Apple makes what, 40 products? Best buy sells maybe 10,000? It would be impossible to run a big retail outfit the same way Apple is done - the whole idea of Apple is to be exclusive purveyor of a particular line of products.

    One employee for every 3 people? So there are 33 sales people in the store for 100 people? I think not, especially these days.

    It would be good for Microsoft to start interacting with humanity, though.

  • Vasileios Bakopoulos

    Great post.

    Yes, it would be great if we could have a little quote on each product and make them human as you say. But that assumes that every product and every SKU has a raison d'etre which is not the case (take TV's for instance...). Most companies create products around features and they are busy optimizing instead of innovating and clarifying their product range.

    So Apple wins, again, because they can control their product range and retail strategy from end to end and create a total experience for the customer (although my personal experience with genius bar has always been poor).

    Best Buy on the other hand is a super market (type of COSTCO). Different business model, different experience, but it’s the brands that suffer more in this case not Best Buy.

  • Scobleizer

    One more thought I had is that the Best Buy online experience leaves me wanting big time, especially when compared to Amazon.com. But, that's really another post for another day.