Talk about getting right up in your face.
Microsoft opened its first retail store in Northern California on Thursday, parking its 4,000 square feet of polished counters and shimmering glass smack dab across the aisle in Valley Fair mall from the polished counters and shimmering glass of the Apple (AAPL) Store.
"I feel bad for those guys in Apple,'' said Blake Contreras, a 12-year-old from San Jose who camped outside the night before so he could be first in line for the grand opening. "Microsoft's having this big party, and the Apple employees just have to sit there and watch.''
Apple will be just fine, Blake. With 357 stores worldwide, the Cupertino tech giant has left its competition from Redmond, Wash., a lot of room to catch up in the retail sphere. And while Microsoft promises more openings soon, the Silicon Valley store was only Number 13. Still, as the white-tarp curtain fell at 9:53 a.m., the glimmering jewel box Microsoft has pulled out of its sleeve took the crowd's breath away.
Flanked by staffers in a T-shirted rainbow of colors, store manager Mike Ortiz pumped them up even more. "Good morning, Santa Clara!'' he yelled into the microphone. "We're so excited to be here, and we've got a lot of people inside who want to show you lots of cool Microsoft products.''
And there they were, jumping and hollering and high-fiving every customer sucked into the scrum. The store design clearly was a nod to the competitor standing 20 paces away. The lines are not only clean, they're antiseptic.
And like the Apple Store, the tables, counters and wall displays in the Microsoft Store are carefully arranged to create a sort of symmetrical bliss for the visitor. But perhaps the one feature that sets the store apart is its stunning "video wall'' lining the sides and back of the space. Running across it are animated characters, jaw-dropping natural scenery and photos of Microsoft's cavalcade of products.
"The wall really brings a lot of energy into the store,'' said Mika Yamamoto, Microsoft's general manager for marketing and customer experiences. "But the oak floors, tables and counters also help create a homey feeling, so that everyone from nine to 99 will be comfortable coming in here.''
Many of the customers who had lined up overnight and early in the morning had actually come for reasons other than Microsoft products; giveaways included tickets to hot concerts and a chance to see 49ers legend Joe Montana later in the day. But even if they came for ulterior motives or didn't happen to be die-hard Microsoft fans, many visitors were blown away by the dazzling interior of the store.
"I have a Microsoft laptop, but I also have an iPhone, so I have split allegiances, I guess,'' said Brittany O'Brien, a 19-year-old Sonoma State student who drove down at 2 a.m. and got in line, mostly to snag two free tickets to a concert Friday by Black Keys. "But this is so high-tech, compared with the Apple Store over there. I love the bright colors in here; they make you want to come inside. This store makes the Apple Store seem gray.''
But many admitted they were Mac lovers simply there for the freebies. In a brilliant marketing coup, Microsoft was dangling free concert tickets to the first 700 people in line to see either Black Keys or Joe Jonas. The crowd, which appeared to near the 500 mark shortly before 9 a.m., was mostly young people in their late teens and early 20s fiddling with their iPhones in line. When a reporter yelled out to the crowd, "who wants to buy a Microsoft product," only one hand was raised.
Luigi Chiamese, 66, said he would "check Microsoft out" and hand the Joe Jonas tickets to a friend's 12-year-old niece.
If what they say about imitation is true, Apple should feel downright flattered. The Microsoft store, which a spokeswoman said was located in the spot because it has heavy traffic and frothy revenues-per-square-foot, takes several pages from its neighbor, including Microsoft's answer to Apple's Genius Bar, simply called the Answer Desk.
"Steve Jobs and Apple took retailing into a new age with its stores,'' said marketing expert and Santa Clara University professor Buford Barr. "And in business, emulation is the finest form of flattery, so Microsoft is smart enough to at least take some of Apple's ideas. Apple has the traffic, so Microsoft sets up right across from them. It's a follower strategy -- why would you want to be on the other end of the mall when you can be where the action is?''
Barr says Microsoft may look like a copycat, but "there's nothing wrong with being number two with these stores. Let Apple spend the big money and come up with the ideas and then copy some of them. In the end, this will help both of them.''
An Apple employee watching the party across the way seemed to agree. "We're happy they're here,'' she said. "But we're not worried. There's plenty of tech consumers out there to keep us all busy.''
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689, or follow him at patmaymerc on Twitter.
Number: 13 in the chain
Size: 4,000 square feet
Typical size of its other stores: 5,000 square feet
Microsoft employees in the Bay Area: 2,560
Number to be opened in next three years: 75
Next opening: Washington, D.C., next week
Source: Mercury News reporting