Ten years after it opened its doors in 2009, Microsoft recently announced that several Microsoft Stores are shutting down, including all seven in Canada, sparing just four as experience centres for its products.
Microsoft Stores were conceived back in an era when Steve Balmer, Microsoft’s then-CEO, was hellbent on one-upping Apple. Microsoft never banked on its retail stores to rake in the big bucks, instead, it was willing to take a loss to tout its software, namely the Windows operating system and Office productivity suite.
The store’s initial selection of third-party devices eventually included the Windows Surface lineup after it launched in 2012. Additionally, it had a gaming section dedicated to Xbox and, in recent years, virtual reality demos that featured both the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. There was even a mobile section for Windows Phones before it croaked. Store staff also regularly held workshops, training sessions, and product launch events within the store’s semi-enclosed event space
Evidently, shutting down retail locations reduced consumer’s ability to test out products before they buy, especially premium devices like the Surface Studio, and bleeding-edge devices like the Surface Neo and Surface Duo. Moreover, it weakened community engagement (although the store has moved on to provide online sessions). But for many consumers, the greatest loss was in-person support.
Like Apple’s Genius Bar, customers could schedule one-on-one training or troubleshooting sessions with Microsoft store employees post-purchase. Services ranged between tutorials on Windows basics, to resolving common glitches within the operating system. The personal training sessions were offered as a part of the optional warranty service that can be purchased with the device.
Microsoft Store’s in-person support provided a trustworthy recourse for customers when their devices broke. In contrast to a distant–and often frustrating–phone call, a personal connection can reduce stress for both the customer and the technician. Removing the Microsoft Store could erode customer’s confidence in aftermarket support.
But does Microsoft even care? Absolutely. Microsoft Store was an asset for amplifying the brand, and although Microsoft’s cloud segment has been booming, its end-user products still remain as one of its most profitable businesses.
It’s no secret that the company is greatly invested in its Azure cloud, but the revenue has still yet to eclipse personal computing. In 2019, Microsoft’s personal computing business generated $45 billion in revenue while cloud generated $39 billion. In addition to Windows commercial and Windows OEM licencing, Surface devices and gaming accounted for a large portion of that figure.
As I previously mentioned, the Microsoft Store gave consumers an opportunity to try out the products and intimately learned about their benefits prior to purchase. Without a personal touch, it could create a wider distance between consumers and the company’s innovations.