Microsoft Pop-Up Stores: Apple (And Walmart) Shouldn't Sweat

Microsoft has retail dreams to rival Apple's chain of stores, but we're pretty sure this isn't going to help: A blogger on November 29 reported buying a Surface tablet at a Microsoft pop-up store in a New York City mall and then watching the PC-based POS system crash twice, requiring two separate reboots to complete the transaction.

This would be a little less embarrassing for Microsoft if not for the fact that the repeatedly crashing operating system was either Windows or Microsoft's own customized version that it sells as a POS system. This is not the way you demonstrate your retail expertise and compete with Apple—or anyone else.

According to blogger Evan Gotlib, he called ahead to the Microsoft pop-up store at an upscale mall on Manhattan's Upper West Side (yes, it had plenty of Surface tablets in stock) and then went to collect one. Despite the bustling mall, there were no other customers at the small Microsoft booth. When Gotlib said he wanted to buy a tablet, he was repeatedly asked if he wanted a demonstration, first by an associate and then by her manager.

Let's be kind and chalk that up to rushed training for temporary holiday associates and managers. (The first rule for associates in a store that only sells one thing: When the customer wants to buy, stop the sales pitch and close the sale.) And let's write off the eight associates standing around with nothing to do as a case of Microsoft optimism.

But it's what happened next, once it was time to check out, that should take a retailer's breath away:

My original sales rep takes the items over to the register, pulls out a tired old scanner gun and zaps my two items. The Microsoft laptop acting as the register immediately crashes. She looks up at me and says, "Sorry my computer crashed. Just give me a second to reboot."

She reboots, rings me up and asks me if I'd like my receipt. I ask her to email it to me. She says they can't do that. So I tell her sure, I'll take the receipt. She hits print, the computer crashes again, and I walk out.

OK, hold on. Microsoft's own WEPOS product has a sizable chunk of the POS market. Is that what's serving as a POS at this Microsoft pop-up store in an upscale mall? If so, it's the worst product demonstration ever for anyone in retail who happens upon a Microsoft pop-up store. If not—well, why isn't Microsoft using its own POS system in its pop-ups? Wouldn't that be sort of like Apple not using iPods for its own mobile POS?

Given that Microsoft is clearly competing with Apple stores (two of them within easy walking distance—one just up Broadway, the other just across Central Park), whose idea was it to tell upscale shoppers they couldn't avail themselves of the most basically Apple-ish gimmick possible: getting a receipt by E-mail?

The whole point behind a pop-up store like this is to give a taste of your retail experience to customers who don't have a store nearby. For those customers, it doesn't matter whether they've ever been in a real Microsoft store; this is the only Microsoft retail experience they've got to go by. That means if you're going to do pop-ups, you really have to sweat the details, because you may never get a second chance.

This isn't even the first time Microsoft has recently fumbled the retail experience outside its own stores, which suggests Redmond really doesn't understand what it's up against—competing not just with Apple, but Walmart and Target and Sears, too.

Look, retail is hard. Retail IT is hard. If Microsoft wants to play in retail, at the very least the IT giant has to get the IT right—and that includes those highly visible pop-up stores. Otherwise, it could lose customers for the products the pop-ups are selling and the products the pop-ups are using, all without those customers ever setting foot in the chain Microsoft someday hopes to become.