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Microsoft to launch its own retail stores

The software giant, taking a page from Apple's playbook, wants to make it easier for customers to check out products such as the XBox game console. Analysts are skeptical.

February 14, 2009|Alana Semuels

Microsoft Corp. is looking for an answer to Apple Inc.'s genius.

The Redmond, Wash., software giant plans to open a series of retail stores to show off its goods. It's taking a page from the playbook of its scrappy computer-industry rival, which has boosted sales by opening Apple stores across the globe and stocking its Genius Bar with tech experts.

Details about Microsoft's plans for the stores were still scarce Friday. But the idea is to make it easier for customers to buy and check out Microsoft products, such as the XBox game console, Zune digital media player and Surface tabletop computer -- as well as computer gear made by partners that run its software.

Microsoft named David Porter as corporate vice president of retail stores late Thursday. He spent 25 years at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. before joining DreamWorks Animation SKG in 2007, where he was head of worldwide product distribution.

"I am excited about helping consumers make more informed decisions about their PC and software purchases," Porter said in a news release, which added that his first task would be to decide when, where and how to open the Microsoft-branded stores.

Skeptics questioned whether Microsoft's strategy would work in a dismal retail climate. They also wondered whether its stores could compete with Apple's, which seem to draw in passersby with the strength of the Death Star tractor beam in "Star Wars."

"Microsoft is putting the cart before the horse," analyst Allan B. Krans with Technology Business Research wrote in a research note. "Stores do not draw consumers to products; innovative products bring consumers into stores."

The beginning of Apple's store strategy coincided with the launch of the iPod, which attracted shoppers to the retail locations. Microsoft's problem, Krans said, is that it doesn't have anything particularly exciting to show off. Not many dedicated PC users are willing to sleep outside a Microsoft store for the newest Windows operating system, as Apple fans did for the iPhone.

Worse, Microsoft might alienate its distributors by trying to compete with them, and retail stores don't need any more competition in this economy. Other computer companies, such as Gateway Inc., that have ventured into retail have failed, and even Microsoft's halfhearted attempt at opening a San Francisco store in 1999 was short-lived.

It didn't take long for ribbing to begin. A tongue-in-cheek list by PC World of ways in which the Microsoft stores would differ from Apple's included an Excuse Bar rather than Genius Bar and a theme park ride called Blue Screen of Death, after the image that appears when a Windows PC crashes.

And on Twitter, a Houston marketer named Brian Rooney wrote: "What would you do to make going into a Microsoft store a magical experience? I would sell Macs."

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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