The first impression is everything
October 26 is a big day for Microsoft. Not only is it the first day that it's shiny new Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book devices are available for purchase. And it's not just the eve of the launch of Halo 5: Guardians. It's also the day that Microsoft's first-ever flagship retail store opens on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
The company even enlisted the help of pop star Pitbull to draw the crowds. (Grand opening attendees have a chance at tickets to the free concert.)
It's arguably as important a day as the new devices' launch itself. After all, we've seen what an impressive retail showing has done for certain competitor's hardware efforts – there's much to be said of the first impression.
I was offered a sneak preview of the new five-story megastore recently, and the company's sincerity and energy toward this store was palpable. Features like a 6,449-square-foot glass facade with a 40 x 20-foot digital art display Microsoft GM of Worldwide Marketing, Microsoft Retail and Online Stores Kelly Soligon calls the "Culture Wall" and a two-story, 36-screen monitor tower say as much.
As you'll see, the store is quite the sight, and, more importantly for Microsoft, quite the statement about its hardware efforts.
Come in and take a load off
The first thing you'll notice upon entering the massive glass, automated doors of the Microsoft Store is the hardware. Hardware everywhere, untethered and behind library-style stools on waist-level desks.
Microsoft wants you to sit down and take the time to get to know it's new devices, from its Surface Book to even its new Lumia phones. And Soligon says that the company's willing to deal with the increased chance of shrink (i.e. theft) for the opportunity to show customers these devices in a more natural environment.
"Customers love connecting with and feeling devices, and I would too – if I'm going to spend $1,000 on a machine," Soligon says. "I want to feel it and touch it. So, it's been great to hear customers say that they love that we do that."
The family's all there, made in Microsoft's image
Despite recent rumblings amongst its partners over its bolstered hardware initiative, Microsoft's partners are present and accounted for in its face to the nation. Dell, Lenovo, HP and Razer laptops and desktops are all on show on the store's ground floor. (There's even an entire third floor dedicated to Dell that wasn't available for show during the preview.)
And buying one of these products from the Microsoft Store comes with a unique advantage: zero bloatware. Microsoft partners with the OEMs, or original equipment manufactures, to load devices sold in its store with a company-made image called Microsoft Signature. It's free of all the third-party subsidized software and settings you'd find buying the same machine from another store.
"We test it, we've developed the image, and then we help them deliver it through the build," Soligon says. "It's really important for us and our customers that we're getting the best possible Microsoft experience, and that is Signature."
Redmond extends its community across coasts
With this store – and the one launching in Sydney, Australia on November 12 – Microsoft's not just showing that it can play ball with its biggest rivals in the hardware business, but that it can offer the same – if not better – services to the community. That's where the Microsoft Community Theater comes in.
Set to serve up to 60 people with 70 free events every week, the Theater is a space to train and inform customers in how to best use their new hardware and software. The Theater offers courses in everything from how to use the new Office to digital photography and editing – there are even community Minecraft lessons.
I'm told that Microsoft is working with the local school districts and community organizations to spread the word about these events, so there will likely be no shortage of attendees to keep the store's 160 employees, including eight senior staff.
Microsoft's thinking of the global community, too, especially with the amount of tourists that visit New York every year and stroll down what's one of the best shopping destinations in the world. "I think we're well-equipped to serve that community, our associates speak over 19 languages," Soligon touts, "and so I think we have a great, diverse employee set that's going to be able to connect with customers in that manner."
But why a flagship store now?
When touring the massive new storefront, I couldn't help but ask, with six years of retail stores in malls and shopping centers (now over 100 in North America), why a flagship store now?
"A flagship has always been a goal of ours, but to be honest," Soligon says, "we wanted to do it in the right location and the right space. And real estate in Manhattan, which is the perfect place for a flagship, doesn't come easily."
But the location of Microsoft's flagship serves a twofold purpose for the company that it's previous stores can't: to serve both the local and global community at once.
"It was super important for us to be a part of the local community, to be in an area that had great foot traffic, but also a place where we could be pivotal partners with community organizations," Soligon explains. "So, we were patient, and this opportunity came up when Fendi's lease expired, and we're delight by it. I mean, Fifth Avenue is one of the best, if not the best, shopping destinations in the world."
Even in the age of Amazon and buying things on your smartwatch, the power of retail cannot be underestimated. Especially when the stakes are as high as two of the world's most prolific companies gunning for the same customers.
"When you think about stores, we're the face of Microsoft."