Store Review

Microsoft London

Capital idea

The eagerly awaited Microsoft London flagship store at Oxford Circus has finally opened its doors. As the first London outpost of the now 80-strong international fleet, much was expected from this new store. The question is, does it deliver?

Replacing the former Benetton store, it’s position at the crossing of Oxford Street and Regent Street is perhaps a metaphor for the tricky task the brand faces in creating a store that’s appealing for everyone.

Here, Microsoft juggle expectations of both a mainstream audience who have come to know and expect their reliable, if not a little ordinary, tech fayre (and for many who have little choice but to use their software products everyday) that has become the international ‘business standard’. Balance this with other consumers who see where and how the brand must step up to compete with edgier ‘designer’ tech brand competitors.

As such, finding its own distinctive voice, style and retail proposition was always going to be a challenge. The uneasy brief, with its juxtaposition of competing objectives, is truly evident within the store that has been created.

This is indeed Prime retail space, and likely commanding a rental value to match.

With incredible London views and an enviable position at one of London’s most popular locations, this is indeed Prime retail space, and likely commanding a rental value to match – the generous use of free space demonstrating that Microsoft sees this location more as a PR opportunity than a store that needs to make a big financial return.

Unlike competitor tech stores with their more commercially focused formats, there is more ambiguity about the ‘purpose’ of this store beyond its obvious PR attractiveness. Offering places for consumers to shop, play and learn about Microsoft products, this is balanced with a strong corporate focus – demonstrating the enviable but tricky to manage space that the Microsoft brand occupies within the tech products landscape, balancing its broad appeal between consumers and business.

Architecturally, the exterior of the store is spectacular – the grand frontage and elegant, neoclassical and refined stone exterior makes for a bold street presence and opening statement. No doubt something that will have driven Microsoft to ‘want that’ store specific location. This Heritage Regency Grade 1 listed building is a London landmark site that has stood the test of time, unlike the many retail concepts from the building’s former retail occupants that have come and gone.

The location maybe ideal but the instore space, and use of it, isn’t. Every floor tries hard to make the best use of the sites arc layout footprint.

The ground floor appears smallest in area with awkward, restricted movement and layout flow. The second floor offers a better retail space, but divides this uneasily between the brand’s different products and concepts without unifying design synergy. The upper third floor, with the most generous sense of space, is intended for Microsoft Enterprise corporate product solutions. This floor features generous ‘non retail’ areas, equipped with meeting rooms and free to use/bookable conferencing facilities for business customers.

The big elephant in the room, however, is how the Microsoft brand and store concept is deficient in one of the most essential competencies and needs in today’s consumers ‘tech world’ – mobile phones.

In disposing of the Nokia brand and the category, a key part of an integrated tech message cannot be told. Overall, this along with other misalignments means the store struggles to find a genuine and fully connected sense of purpose. Each product area stands singly and apart, a composition of ill-fitting components. With some interesting features in themselves, these lack an overarching brand story, design ethos or fully connected journey and experience. For now, high levels of team members and proactive, attentive service fill the void of brand narrative, product newness and consumer needs.

You don’t have to look far instore to see that retail design is not its forte, nor priority.

For those interested in leading edge retail design and visual merchandising, this store will sadly disappoint. Yes, Microsoft has rolled out a more engaging version of their already familiar concept, but in London, this may not prove to be enough.

Situated just a few doors down from Apple’s Regent Street store, finding its own distinctive voice, style and compelling retail proposition was always going to be a challenge. Interacting with Microsoft may be a routine activity for many of us, but the brand’s retail experience shouldn’t be.

Sharing many familiar elements found in other tech stores, comparisons with Apple and Samsung are impossible to avoid. Where Apple elevates its retail design to a chic and stylish look, with a service orientated ‘high ground’, Samsung delivers on product choice and high levels of immersive tech interactivity. Here, Microsoft sits at an uneasy crossing. You don’t have to look far instore to see that retail design is not its forte, nor priority.

Inside, the most notable feature is the newly installed elliptical oak and glass staircase that forms a spectacular focal point and links the store’s three floors. As something of de rigueur design element in tech store design, from a design perspective it ‘steals the show’.

It’s unashamedly, but disappointingly mainstream.

The rest of the store, however, is notable only for its blandness, disjointed concepts and middle of the road design characteristics. Benches, seating and fixturing have a clumsy, uncomfortable look. Wayfinding and signage elements are crude and surprisingly low tech.

Overall, there’s too little in the way of smart details – it’s unashamedly, but disappointingly mainstream, reflecting what was undoubtedly an uneasy store experience brief, with its juxtaposition of competing consumer and brand objectives.

Used to promote newness and innovation, the ‘fairground attraction’ ground floor features a jumbled assortment of things to play with. The McLaren Senna sports car parked as a window display and hooked up to the brands’ wifi technologies is clearly a crowd pleaser. Here, ‘petrol heads’ can take a virtual test drive in a simulated experience via Forza Motorsport 7. The most notable feature about the ground floor is the use of LED digital walls. Fitted to most of the perimeter space, they are designed to provide a highly engaging and everchanging animated backdrop for promoting the Microsoft’s latest campaigns and products. Or they would do were the digital content itself more interesting and of blockbuster quality.

On the second floor, the retail space is focused on showcasing Microsoft Surface tablets, notebook and desktop devices, along with the hardware, software solutions and peripherals. Interesting features include a laser-printing unit for customising device shells and cases. There is also a dedicated flexible learning space, fully equipped with classroom style functionality that’s available as a, bookable space to host educational events for Microsoft products and services for schools and charities.

Also located on the second floor is a dedicated Xbox play space and gaming products area. Although it does its best to sit easily in this store but as a popular and distinctive brand in its own right, the Xbox store concept would surely suit its own dedicated storefront and space much better.

Accessed through a connecting corridor that doubles as a retail product showcase, this opens out to a full-scale Xbox gaming room equipped with live terminals running Microsoft’s latest suite of gaming products in real-time. The brand’s distinctive signature neon green and black identity is used as the basis of the concept design and presented with an authentic, immersive, and highly intense social experience. Although successful, it is similar to other big gaming store concepts elsewhere. The Razer store in the US shares much of the same design ethos, functionality and atmosphere. So too, elements that Game was rolling out with its own ‘Belong’ arenas.

Despite this, the area has quickly become a popular ‘hang out’ destination with gaming stations occupied all day long by hard line enthusiasts. So although the Xbox brand concept area does not offer a ‘game-changing’ experience in terms of store design, its immediate popularity and PR potential suggests this part of the shop will remain a hit with Xbox devotees regardless.

When the first Microsoft stores were opened, design had a strict corporate brand sensibility. Here, they have worked to personalise the store better to its location. Features include a London ‘selfie spot’ with a digital backdrop, an exclusive selection of Liberty of London x Surface device covers, a digital postcard service with an original London post box and to confirm its enviable position, an AR experience of Oxford Circus itself. These give the store more of a sense of ‘place and personality’, adding colour and context to what is essentially a modern white box concept, with interesting LED wall features and a designer staircase.

In short, this store is new but offers nothing different and arguably, just more of what is already out there, in a rather unspectacular, ordinary way. Maybe the brief was in all reality delivered?

In an attempt to please everyone, Microsoft fall victim to what all mainstream brands have to work so hard to overcome, to avoid everyday ubiquity, a loss of excitement, distinctives and differentiation that can come from being one of the world’s most common, everyday brands. It’s a clear lesson that being the biggest does not necessarily mean aiming to also be the best.

If Microsoft remain committed to their high staff levels instore and maximise opportunities from their concepts over time, they could accomplish the goal of being ‘some things to all people’. That alone gives the brand a good reason to stay a while.

Click here to see further images of new Microsoft London store.

By Karl McKeever

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