Sunday, February 15, 2009

Retail: It Is Hard

So, Microsoft wants a store. Which immediately got every pundit thinking of the Apple store, the very successful Apple stores. The destination stores, the let's pop in and see what is new stores, the play around stores, the aspirational stores of gear you want to have and things you can buy, the immaculately designed stores, the clean stores, the stores where nothing out is broken, the store where everything is ready to be played with.

Instead it will probably be more like the SonyStyle shops in malls. Ever been to one? I have, and I asked my friends about their experience. They were unanimous: you go in once, find a a lot of gear you are not allowed to touch, a wall of accessories that is hit-and-miss for your more exotic gear, no organization to any of it, when you ask about the new gear you read about in magazines the store help has no idea what you are talking about, and there's an obviously tuned-to-the-max set up of home theater in the back with 3 screens and loudspeakers blaring different stuff that doesn't tell you why one screen costs $2000 more than the other. Then, and most importantly, one look at the prices makes you wonder why you would buy anything here ever instead of just go online. The only times I genuinely liked SonyStyle stores was when I would see kit (that's a UKism) I wouldn't see in any other store, like when I happened on a UX490 in a store in Los Angeles. It, of course, wasn't actually on or charged anything, and the hovering and concerned looks didn't actually make me feel this was a rugged piece of portable electronics designed to go with me everywhere, but hey, it was the only place I got to touch it. Same for the e-ink readers, and the stunning OLED more-money-than-God thin-as-card TV I saw at the store in Heathrow. If I did those stores I would emphasize the Japan-only or barely-carried stuff, available only at outrageous prices, knowing that the stores are just a showcase for the brand anyway. When I went there in the early 2000s the full Qualia range should have been on display, even if locked in plexi-glass. Somehow B&O makes unaffordable luxury HiFi retail work for them.

At least the Nokia Flagship Stores -- dimly lit caves of plastic jewels doing nothing as they are -- understand you will buy these phone somewhere else anyway. The tugging anti-theft strings make it difficult to really get a feel for how this phone will be in your hand or pocket, but at least you can very quickly gauge which product is engaging. The wall of accessories always seems very low on the really exciting new 3d party stuff, and I don't remember being able to really play with bluetooth accessories or something. Just little phones, too many of them off or stuck, mounted on their shiny media stands surrounded by items distracting me from the product.

I am still trying to think about the Microsoft version of the Genius Bar. You know you want one. God, a place to send your relative when their computer is super-slow and their keyboard is screwed up, instead of having to dread family holidays because you will be carted off to the home office the moment you walk in the door with a "Can you fix this you are so good at it it takes you no time". The best sentence you can hear in that context is "I'm paying the neighbor kid for it now, he's as good as you and I don't have to wait till the holidays!" Geek Squad in the US basically tried to make a business of home PC support, coming to your home dressed like Dilbert in little cars, until some big box retailer bought them and instead you could cart your computer to them. Whereas Apple Geniuses were hand-picked from the store help and sent to Cupertino for training with rigorous follow-up, Geek Sqaudders were, well, I am not sure what criteria they were slected by, but they didn't seem to have that aura of The Best around them, for what probably is a mind-numbing job.

Because what would the Microsoft version of the Genius bar do? Wouldn't 80% of the cases be trying to clean up the result of the faults of the design of the Windows kernels? "My computer is slow" means having to clean up layers upon layers of Internet Explorer- and Outlook-delivered viruses that have wormed their way into the system so deep the only real cure is to basically start over, and the prophylactic is to change the account settings to something safe that will break half most of the customer's software because it can't run as Administrator. No Microsoft Genius can win here. "My computer crashes all the time" means having to tell the customer that some peripheral they didn't bring in, some driver, some video-chip glitch, some closed blob of software created by a non-Microsoft pary is not helping, and the ping-pong between hardware and software manufacturers. Nobody likes to call Microsoft support for exactly these issues, would a real live person be able to help any more?

Apple's complete integration and limited internal configurations meant that when I got my appointment with my Apple Genius and said "My MBP is switching off suddenly when off the lead without waring me", the Genius already had some idea, could open the software that deeply monitors the state of my hardware, confirm from it that my battery was shorting out, hand me a new one, and have me out in 10 minutes. After half an hour of waiting even though I was on time. As one of my Apple-store contacts pointed out, the Genius Bar is actually the only part of the store that doesn't scale well with the success of Apple retail. You can always put out more Nanos to play with, more Geniuses is harder. The only response is to stay on top of what happens in the stores, and what happens with the product, and just build a better product that needs less hand holding.

Windows 7 may be such a product that will kill virus exploits dead and be able to handle wonky terrible 3d party drivers and glitchy hardware (and I will get a unicorn-pony, a chocolate cake, and a £100k Chief user eXperience Officer job tomorrow), but that still leaves the collective installed base of 98, ME, 2K, and XP out there -- yes, seriously, they are in use -- collectively running some spam botnet. I wouldn't want to touch these machines with 20 foot poles. Which makes clicking commands hard. The Microsoft Genius bar is a non-starter.

What would be a good tack then? Look, Windows makes money anyway. XBox does not (seriously). Zune does not. Few people really understand what the Microsoft OS can do in the home besides deliver Bonzi Buddy. Few know the breadth of hardware it runs on. So Mike and I thought that was the only chance the Microsoft store has of not being a sad bag of fail in a mall, waiting to be converted into a luggage store two years from now -- who buys all these roll-a-boards anyway? -- is to make it a Dad and Kids Destination while Mom goes shoe shopping. The place to be for all those guys looking at either their shoes or the distance hanging outside the Hairclips n' Glittery Shit stores, hoping nobody they know walks by. 8 humongous flat screens attached to XBoxes, side by side side by side with couches in front of them, pretty much like Best Buy tries to do for Guitar Hero in their store. Have different kinds of games on them so it's not 8 couches of big male teens throwing virtual blood, but also have Game Stewards whose only job is to keep this theater running but are not of the "Kids, get off my lawn!" variety. Always the newest stuff on. Sure, families will use the store as a babysitter, but this babysitter will make your kid nag your parents for $400 worth of hardware. Have music and video and pictures on servers and handhelds all showing how Windows Media Center lets you have your music and video everywhere you are, from on the Xbox to your car. Wall after wall of accessories and game figurines and collectibles, released here first at events. A corner where manufacturers can show their latest box as long as it hasn't been released no more than 6 months ago and is unlikely to show up at a big box to handle and get familiar with. (Alienware! HP's Vivian Tam clutch!) Every media player, loaded up, charged, working, and with people there to reset them so all those media tablets can really show their stuff. And actually, like Apple, have this channel feed back into your product lines: "The street says the Xbox tray is fragile. The Zunes always reset in the store. The Media Server doesn't like this card." Use it to make better products, not just sell them. Apple stores seriously feed back into Apple. They are tracked meticulously.

Oh you want to hold Microsoft Office classes and demos at night? Lord knows the 2007 version could have used a better transition. Sure, if you must. But go big then so you have plenty of space. Because this shouldn't be a Microsoft Windows store, which is all the pundits can see when they think about a Microsoft store. We use that at work, nobody wants to go to a store to see work. Make it a Microsoft-for-everything-else store. Mainly fun.