Technology giant Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) is in the process of opening a string of retail stores across the country in a recent effort to create a community for its current and prospective customers. Its 23rd outpost opened last week at the Prudential Center in Boston.
It is hard to miss the store -- it emits a lively vibe and has no doors or windows. It boasts a 2,400-square-foot showroom, where Microsoft is trying to garner a community following around its products and software. So far, so good?
Well, not quite. The store itself revolves around products that use Microsoft as an operating system, which range from PCs to tablets to gaming consoles. Unlike the Apple store, which specifically sells Apple products (in addition to a few non-Apple accessories); the Microsoft store is trying to be too many things at once.
By aspiring to be all things to all people, Microsoft, by extension of the store, is diluting its image to the average customer. In addition to the retail portion of the store, there is a dedicated area for the small-business community, where they offer tutorials for those who might be interested. Above that, there is a gaming section featuring Xbox 360 and Kinect consoles, where employees demonstrate certain games around the clock. Add to that the constant hubbub of customers and the cheering around the gaming zones -- you have a recipe for chaos.
By basing the stores on an "all-in-one" approach -- ranging from tutorials to small businesses to live Xbox demonstrations -- Microsoft is creating a fragmented consumer experience. By contrast, when you enter an Apple Store, you are treated with a simple and unobtrusive showcase of their products, coupled with pleasant employees available to assist you. The Microsoft Store experience on the other hand, is chaotic, loud and unorganized. Even though the employees may be knowledgeable and friendly, the context in which they are placed in makes them unnecessarily obtrusive.
The essence of visiting a consumer product showroom lies in the freedom to touch, feel and experience the products on a one-to-one basis. The Microsoft store makes it difficult to do that with the numerous activities being showcased all at once.
At the end of the day, it is simplicity that sells. In a world that is becoming more technologically advanced and saturated with choices, people are going back to the basics. They are looking for clean and simple products with a pleasant customer experience. The Microsoft store does not offer that.
As many companies, including Microsoft, seek to increase sales, they continue to add more clutter. Seth Godin, best-selling author and entrepreneur, writes "once you overload the user, you train them not to pay attention." This holds true in the case of the Microsoft Store, because once the shift is made towards chaos and clutter, it becomes really hard to go back to a simpler experience. "More is not always better," he explains, "more is almost never better."
The fact of the matter is that Microsoft is not in a good spot. It is lagging behind the two leading consumer electronics companies in tablet computing and smartphones. The good news is that Microsoft understands its flaws and situation. Opening a store may turn out to be a step in the right direction for the company, only if the consumer experience is simplified and communicated more effectively. Until then, it will remain uncool.