Undercover Shopper: Apple vs. Microsoft Store

FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2012, file photo, Microsoft Corp. retail store employees and guests mingle at a pop-up Microsoft Stor
FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2012, file photo, Microsoft Corp. retail store employees and guests mingle at a pop-up Microsoft Store during Microsoft's annual meeting of shareholders, in Bellevue, Wash. Longtime users of Hotmail, MSN and other Microsoft email services will start noticing a big change: When they sign in to check messages, they’ll be sent to a new service called Outlook.com. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren,File)

During the work week I'm a Blogger-CTO for a mighty Internet disrupter. But on the weekends I'm just an ordinary joe. I trade in my starched button-down shirt and high-tech urban warrior shoes for a well-worn polo shirt and beat up old sneakers. I become a hapless shopper, out for the afternoon with my family looking for bargains and decent food at the food court at the mall.

That transformation makes me a perfect undercover shopper. As I travel from store to store I look like an easy mark, ready for a clever sales clerk to pounce and part me and my credit card-powered money. But I try to be a crafty shopper: I try not to buy on impulse and I try to research everything that I do buy. And I always remember that stuff bought on credit automatically costs 15 percent to 30 percent more.

At one of the local major malls we are blessed with both an Apple Store and a Microsoft Store. I was excited to shop them side-by-side in my own undercover shopper exercise. Long ago and far away in the mists of time I used to buy computers at computer stores: an IBM PC/AT clone and a Macintosh 512KE. Those places were independently owned resellers located in strip malls and populated by middle-aged sales people who were certified and really knew their stuff. In Princeton the best computer store was Clancy-Paul. As a college kid in the late 1980s I would hangout with their techs and absorb as much IBM and Apple hardware lore as I could.

Ready to step into the modern incarnation of the computer retail shop I decided my first stop should be the Microsoft Store. Outside the store an Xbox and Kinect was setup and a crowd of kids were holding an ernest dance-off. They were seriously competing and seriously good. This Olympian competition looked promising for venerable Microsoft.

Inside the Microsoft Store it was a different story. There seemed to be more staff than customers. I was pounced on three times before I got to the table with the Surface Pros. A very eager sales dude talked me though using Microsoft's new swanky tablet and explained its nifty features and how I could get back to a Windows 7 like desktop at the touch of a button. He seemed to have answers for my every question: How is the Pro different from the RT? Can I run my Windows 7 software on the Pro? Why does it have a pen, a touch screen, and a keyboard? (He didn't have a good answer for that last one). The deeper I went below the surface of the Surface Pro the more agitated that sales dude became. Eventually he walked away as I discovered the device needed its wireless Internet connection reset, the Microsoft App store was nearly impossible to navigate, it was hard to find the app I downloaded, and the freshly downloaded app didn't run right off the bat.

I felt bad for the Microsoft Store. The devices and accessories looked sharp and smart. But they were heavy to hold and didn't work as advertised. I would have liked to buy a Surface Pro but I think I'll wait for Pro 2 and Windows 9. Microsoft is the king of "good enough" (except for Xbox) and a Windows-based product requires a healthy third party system support ecosystem to get it to work for consumers. Alas, Clancy-Paul went out of business in the 1990s.

I probably don't have to say much about the Apple Store: The staff never approached me; It was packed and noisy with the energy of a dance floor but with adults and not kids (I think it actually smelled); The Apple products were everywhere and I could explore them in peace; The accessories on the shelves in the back were really interesting: Nike FuelBands, Beats headphones, Jambox wireless speakers. The Apple sales staff were mostly talking to each other and seemed to be engaged in deep philosophical locutions.

So why is Microsoft failing at selling pricey devices directly to consumers while Apple is clearly still succeeding? For the same reasons that JC Penney is failing at replicating the Apple Store experience. We also visited "Pennies" at the same mall and like the Apple Store it was a bright, savvy, consumer-oriented experience. They even had iPads out where I could browse Levi jeans without touching them. JC Penney hired the guy who invented the Apple Store concept a couple of years ago (not Steve Jobs, Ron Johnson) with the idea of radically updating the JC Penney's look and feel. But like the Microsoft Store Ron Johnson's user experience is sterile and museum-like. You can't apply Apple like a magic formula to a failing business model and expect consumers to come running back.

My wife and I call JC Penney "Pennies." As Pennies shoppers for 30 years we expect well-made clothing and housewares for a value price and, of course, great coupons. My wife used her coupons to get $40 worth of clothing for $7 that day. That felt really good, like a personal victory, a unique experience that keeps us coming back. Ron should embrace the "Pennies" and not try to turn it into an Apple-ish fantasyland.

Microsoft should do the same thing and focus on its core consumers: Kids. Bring the Xbox dance revolution inside the store. Xbox's are awesome and Microsoft is starting to recognize that awesomeness. Microsoft needs to pivot hard into the Xbox and build up its ecosystem with ruthless focus that turns those dancing kids outside the store to lifelong Microsoft users. I can see that some folks at Microsoft get it but their efforts are drowned out by the need to keep Windows relevant and Apple contained. Spend 5 minutes outside the Microsoft Store and you will see -- Not one of those kids gives a hoot about Windows or Apple. They came to dance.