I went to a Microsoft Store and all I saw was Apple laughing

Microsoft is closing almost all its stores, so I wanted to see what they look like now. And to wonder why Microsoft did it.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer


Chris Matyszczyk/ZDNet

The first thing I saw were these words: "Build your personal brand."

This is something Microsoft didn't quite grasp for a little too long. Its brand wasn't personal. Instead, it was large and cold, something of which Apple took full advantage.

Eventually, Microsoft got the hint that humanity may be a good thing. Surprisingly, it even began to open stores, most at locations near Apple stores. All to coincide with the glory that was Windows 7.

Now, though, Microsoft is closing almost all its stores, a peculiar admission of, well, what exactly? That the company desperately needed to save $450 million -- the amount it's officially writing down? That physical retail is dead? That the coronavirus will last for years? That Microsoft just can't do what Apple can do?

Ever since the announcement, I've wondered what state Microsoft has left its stores in. Have they already been dismantled? Or do they just stand there, forlorn?

So I wandered up to a Bay Area store and peeked inside to see. There, indeed, was that instant invocation to enhance your personal brand by uploading your headshot to Microsoft-owned LinkedIn. It stood there like a sad armadillo in a desert of despair.

A sign in the window said the store was closed due to COVID-19. No word that it wouldn't open again. Ever.

The tables were devoid of products, though some of the shelves still seemed to house boxes of accessories. Or perhaps accessory boxes with nothing inside.

The Xbox Game Pass display featured two lonely controllers and a few wires.


Brand building isn't easy.

Chris Matyszczyk/ZDNet

Where there used to be Surface Books, there were now two stools upturned, bookends to time that's passed. The Mobile table was the same, a relic of Samsungs never sold and conversations that were sometimes entertaining.

At least that's what I often found when I visited one of these stores. The staff was, more often than not, engaging. And, given that the stores were rarely full, they had time to talk and to tell you about their lives, their philosophies, and their other jobs.

Why, only last year, a Microsoft store salesman gave me a very clever reason to switch from iPhone to Samsung. It was all about having a growth mindset, he said. This is something that now, in Microsoft's case, doesn't include these stores.

It's easy to think this a daft decision. Having stores allows people to see, touch, feel, and play with your products. It also creates a physical presence, one that tells people you're an important brand -- and attractive, too.

Microsoft claims shutting these stores heralds "a new approach to retail." Because no one had ever thought of offering customer support online. The company insisted the majority of its products are digital anyway.

Yet Redmond has spent hundreds of millions of dollars making sure sports announcers finally realize the Surface isn't an iPad. It's tried to impress with dual-screen phones -- or tablets, or whatever they are.

And now it believes a physical presence isn't worth it? Perhaps Microsoft will be proven right, as COVID-19 devastates physical retail for far longer than some anticipate. Indeed, Apple just announced it's re-closing 30 of its stores because of the persistence -- and growth -- of the virus.

Perhaps, though, Microsoft just got tired of its stores never having the cachet -- or at least the palpable buzz -- of Apple stores.

It must be hard for employees to be in a relatively quiet store and be able to see people walking by carrying Apple bags and even to hear the noise from the nearby Apple store.

As I walked away from this sad, unkempt cemetery, I wondered why it is that Apple is so much better at coming late to a market and still managing to define it. Something which, in this case, Microsoft just couldn't do.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the nearby Apple store to see what was happening there.

Then, it was quiet. This time, I could see business had picked up. Unlike two weeks ago, there was a police officer perched discreetly on a seat opposite the store. Inside, there were far more people than I'd seen before. Outside, quite a few people were wanting to get in.

In front of the Apple store, an employee was busily sweeping with a rare determination. Apple is here to stay, right?

I wonder, though, what would happen to America -- and the world -- if Apple, too, decided it just wasn't worth having stores anymore. Would there be anything left of malls and high streets?

Or would Microsoft suddenly look up and decide this was the perfect time to come to the rescue?

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