How Microsoft Can Outdo the Apple Store in Manhattan

Apple’s flagship store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue is about to get a new neighbor.

This week Microsoft announced plans for its own Manhattan flagship outpost, just five blocks from Apple’s big glass cube. And retail location isn’t the only way Microsoft has been seen as mimicking—often without the same success—Apple’s approach to retail. Here’s a closer look at features shared by the bitter rivals:

1. Display tables. Apple has trademarked the display configuration of its U.S. stores: Those long rectangular tables lining the middle, the cantilevered shelves along the walls, and the oblong table with stools at the back are all protected.

Microsoft also has long rectangular tables, with a difference: They’re rotated 90 degrees and have blocky, ungainly legs that are a far cry from the clean lines and flush edges of Apple’s tables. The aesthetic resonates through the perimeter displays, which have thick, dark-brown surfaces that don’t cantilever off the walls.

2. Theater. Starting with its inaugural store in McLean, Va., in 2001, Apple has installed theaters in the rear to deliver tutorials to those who need help mastering its new technology. The screens have also been used to broadcast speeches from Macworld. The amenity helped to eat up space in the early days, when the Apple Store had just four products.

Microsoft, which opened its first retail space in 2009, also outfits its stores with a theater for use by community organizations. The space, in keeping with Microsoft’s charitable image, can be booked at no charge for training sessions, workshops, and other events.

3. Help desks. Apple’s stroke of genius was to brand its tech-support desk the Genius Bar, which Ron Johnson, the former senior vice president, called “the heart and soul of our stores.” Microsoft’s answer to the Genius Bar? The Answer Desk. Yes, you really are a PC.

A Microsoft store has a far different spirit and feel than its rival’s. Part of that has to do with the bright lighting, garish color palette, and wraparound wall of digital screens. It has all the high-design aura of an AT&T store. Perhaps the goal is to create an interior around the products that is approachable and populist. But given the success of Apple’s approach, that probably isn’t what people want—especially those walking down a glitzy retail boulevard like Fifth Avenue.

Microsoft hasn’t revealed what its plans are for the new locale. If it were to ask me for direction, which it hasn’t, I would advise the company to out-Apple the nearly Apple Store: Cut no corners and invest in quality materials and precise construction. Make the space as brandless and austere as a Muji shop. Heck, hire an architect, such as Rem Koolhaas, and tell him to create an interior as iconic as the Seattle Public Library. Create a space that’s technologically progressive by installing interactive displays and possibly digital photo booths that let kids text selfies to their friends.

I may not know the exact winning formula, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be found at the Answer Desk.

Photographs Courtesy Microsoft Stores; Apple Display Photograph by Artur Debat/Getty Images; Apple Classes Photograph by Greg Gard/Alamy; Apple Genius Bar Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images.

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