One of these things is not like the other: Apple store, Microsoft store

Boston Apple store I was an hour early for dinner with fabulous wife Whitney Connaughton and friends last Friday so I thought I’d tool around the local Apple store for a bit. The Back Bay Apple store in Boston is a thing of beauty — and it only took two years to get Boston’s historical commission to approve the design.

It’s a typical big format Apple store. I took some cool pictures and got to meet Ron Johnson back in 2008 when it opened. Spinning off the central spiral staircase, the store is spread over three floors with computers mostly the focus on one, iPhones, iPods and accessories on two and training space and more accessories on three. I needed to get Whitney a keyboard for her iPad and selected this lovely one from Logitech. I was surprised to discover that there were no wandering, wireless cashiers in the store. I actually had to go back down to the second floor and wait in line — the horror — to get to a regular register to pay.

One aspect was completely consistent with every other Apple store visit I’ve ever made. Not only were there tons of people in the store, there were tons of people buying stuff — all kinds of stuff — in the store. It’s one of those amazing retail chains like Target, Costco and Whole Foods where there just seems to be something in the air that makes people want to empty their wallets and purses at high speed.

Mission completed, I crossed the street to the Prudential Center mall where I was surprised to see, right at the very center of it all and in the highest foot traffic spot, a brand new Microsoft store. On first glance, it looked just as busy as the Apple store.

Boston Microsoft store

I cruised around the store and noticed a few things right away. Although well staffed and attractive, it was a lot more cramped and harder to move through than any Apple store. Also, the tables featured a wide mix of brands. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but I noticed laptops from Acer, Vizio, Samsung and all-in-one type PCs from Lenovo and HP, I think. Most were running Windows 7 although there were a few computers and tablets running Windows 8 to try — not to buy. They definitely did not have the Lenovo X1 Carbon I have my eye on, however. Phones from Nokia and others were all running older versions of Windows Phone, not the new 8 system.

There were also XBox stations set up at each end of the store and lots of people were playing or watching others play. All of the accessories, like laptop cases and boxed software, were set on shelves at the two ends of the store. Yep, right below the XBox television screens thus requiring a potential customer to get in way of all those people focused on the XBox playing. So the physical layout left a lot to be desired.

But the punchline, of course, was that in the 20 minutes I spent perusing the store I did not see a single person buy anything. Not one thing. Why would that be? I’m open to anyone’s theories. A couple of things occured to me:

  • Lack of consistency: At Apple, distinct areas of each store are dedicated to one thing, such as iPods or laptops. In each area, there’s just a whole bunch of the same machines to play with. The message is pretty clear and there’s not much comparing to be done. At Microsoft, too much was jumbled together and yet everything was split apart. I am in the market for a laptop. Should I go to the table called “laptops,” “ultrabooks” or “entertainment laptops”? And each table had a half dozen compeletly different models each with its own tiny sign filled with tiny print showing the specs.
  • Poor layout: As I mentioned above, everything felt cramped, packed together and in the way of everything else. I went to look at the laptop cases but quickly realized I was blocking the view of some people watching an XBox player on a big screen TV on the wall above where the cases were. Embarrassing. And where would I pay? No idea. It made me feel confused. So cramped, embarrased and confused. Not emotions I associate with a positive buying experience.
  • Mixed branding: People see Apple ads on TV or otherwise decide they want to buy an Apple product. So they head to an Apple store. Makes sense. I see a Samsung ad on TV. Where do I go? Is there a Samsung store? What do they have to do with Microsoft? Is Samsung’s Android phone there? I want a Lenovo laptop running Microsoft Windows. It’s actually not here.

Other thoughts?

p.s. Dinner was at Bin 26 Enoteca, an upscale Italian place on Charles Street near the Boston Common with good food and a ridiculous wine list. Recommended.

Hot stuff, cold crap – shopping for your nerd gear in 2012

I’d planned to spend a couple of hours watching my son at the first Little League clinic of the season today, but turned out it wasn’t that kind of clinic — dads begone. Like all good gadgetistas, though, I had a few niggling unmet accessory needs to fill. So sprung for a couple of hours of invented time, I headed into Boston.

I have a new carry-everywhere camera, the mostly delightful Samsung NX 200. It’s a slightly odd size though, kind of a tweener, and doesn’t fit into any of my current camera bags. It’s lost in the Crumpler “Three Million Dollar Home” that holds my digital SLR and it’s a complete no go to squeeze into one of the smaller cases designed for point-and-shoots I have lying around. But it’s high time to get some protection. Already had a few freak-outs — once, I left the camera in a jacket pocket, dumped the jacket on the couch, then looked on in horror as one of the kids sat on it. No crunch, no foul, luckily.

After striking out wandering into a local camera store and a Radio Shack (right, what was I thinking?), I decided to see what Google thought. Quick search for “Crumpler cases Boston” via the trusty Galaxy Nexus came up with a 2008 list of recommendations on Metafilter. The obvious answer seemed to be Hunt’s Photo & Video.

Shopping karma was good. I zipped into the city only to find a free parking space on Comm Ave right in front of the store. Inside, there was a great variety of bags plus the kind of truly knowledgeable sales people that make shopping fun. I ended up with a perfect fit, the Crumpler Two Million Dollar Home, as it turned out, and bought a needed lens filter, too.

I needed a couple of bottles of wine for a dinner we’re hosting this weekend and Hunt’s happens to be right over a liquor store with a reasonable wine selection and another super-helpful sales person. Grabbed some Shiraz and a couple of Merlots to go with the incredible lamb dinner super wife, aka Whitney Connaughton, is cooking up and it was time to move on.

I was on such a shopping high, I decided to see if I could find cheap, on-street parking in the Newbury Street neighborhood, which includes the giant Back Bay Boston Apple store. Sure enough, the parking gods continued to smile upon me and I got a great space. Walking down Newbury Street, Yelp via Android advised the best caffeine refill is from Wired Puppy — and they’re correct as usual. A small cap and some fresh roasted beans later, I’m on my way in the spring drizzle, feeling like my shopping fu is so strong I cannot be defeated. The feeling doesn’t last long, unfortunately.

The second task was to get a new cover for our aged iPad2. My wife’s upgraded to an iPad (3rd Generation) and taken her leather smart cover and BRIGHT PINK Incase sleeve case — which they don’t even seem even to make anymore — with her to cutting-edge-gadget-land (where I assure you she’s just visitor not a long-time local like me). That’s left poor hand-me-down, kid toy iPad2 naked, vulnerable and smudgy.

I thought the obvious answer was just to go into an Apple Store. After all, they have an endless supply of iPhone and iPod cases. But, turned out, they’ve completely de-stocked iPad cases except their own smart cases at least at the big Boston store. I found that so hard to believe that even after one of the helpful blue shirts told me this information, I continued pawing the shelves in disbelief. Sure enough, they now have a vast and beautiful display of laptop cases, including many for the 11″ MacBook Air that would almost fit an iPad, but nothing else. Crazy. Ok, Apple, consider that at least $50 of my money you don’t get.

So what about the giant, three-floor Best Buy nearby? Almost as bad! A few choices of folio-type cases, a few hard covers for the screen and nothing. (Update: A few weeks after I wrote this post, Best Buy announced it was closing the Back Bay location. Not exactly a shocker.)

In desperation, I even wandered into the local Urban Outfitters. Cool stuff for cell phones, crazy-looking headphones and a few other tech-y items. But for the iPad? Nada.

I don’t think I’m being too picky. I don’t like the smart cover (at all!) and I’m looking for something that will protect the iPad on both sides from scratches, scrapes and even maybe a short drop. I’d also like to be able to squeeze the iPad with cover into the laptop pocket of my briefcase along with my Macbook, so the cover needs to be devoid of scratchability on the outside, too. Is it really so hard?

The answer will have to reside online, I guess. Etsy has a billion possibilities, as does Amazon. I’m just not so psyched to shop online for something I’ll be holding in my hands all the time. No tactile info comes through on my screen. And the search experience with the billion possibilities leaves much to be desired. I wish there were checkboxes or sliders that worked to filter the choices in real time by color, material etc., but it’s all just keywords and prices. (Postscript: I ended up going with this kind of boring black sleeve from an Etsy seller)

But the experience got me thinking. With so much available online, it’s getting harder and harder for retail stores out here in the real world. Borders, Circuit City, CompUSA — all long gone. Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Gamestop — it feels like they’re just hanging on by a thread.

Apple’s doing fine but it’s such a banal and generic experience — there was almost no difference between the merchandise in the Apple store on Regent Street in London I perused last week and the one I visited today on Boylston Street in Boston. Of course, the computers and phones are the same, but even the range of bags and cases and other accessories was amazingly identical.

No one can deny that Apple has aced most of the winning strategies for succeeding at retail in the 21st Century but there’s one piece I positively ache for — a unique shopping experience — that they never give me. It’s just so damn generic. Is there room in the world of 2012 for a tech-y, nerdy store that stocks not computers and phones themselves but all the needed add-ons, goo-gahs and accessories? I want a focus on the high-end, the mega-high-end, the artsy, the unusual. If 40 or 50 million of us all have to carry around the identical iPad, the same phone, a common laptop, can we at least regain some style points or distinction via the case, the sleeve, the stickers, the wrapping, the externals and add-ons? And can someone smart and helpful curate a collection for sale of great accessories, the best, the lightest, the coolest, smallest, achingly brilliant ones that as soon as we see and touch we simply can’t do without? Must be a way.

What do you think?

Apple’s big new Back Bay store

As part of the day job, got to attend the press preview of Apple’s new store in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. It’s on Boylston Street across from the Prudential Center Mall. It’s also Apple’s biggest. First floor is all Macs, second floor is for iPods and iPhones while the Genuis Bar and room for training sessions take up the third level. More pictures on my Picassa page here.