We were hanging around the Tysons Corner Mall, waiting for Mom to finish with the hair stylist. For some reason I didn’t understand, the mall was thronged this Saturday night, shortly after hurricane Sandy had passed by. I was cooling my heels, keeping an eye on the offspring, who were loudly playing Fruit Ninja on some big touchscreens that Microsoft had set up in the neighborhood of their store, in the — what do you call it? Street? Hallway? I didn’t grow up with malls, and I’m still unsure about the terminology.
While keeping one eyeball on the pack of screaming elementary school types maniacally slashing floating, virtual fruit, I was becoming vaguely aware of something incongruous. There were people actually inside the Microsoft store. I mean, many people. There was a big crowd in there, and somehow this seemed wrong.
I’d never been inside Microsoft’s big retail shop, but I’d noticed it. I’m not really interested in the debates over who copies whose user interfaces among Apple, Microsoft, Xerox, KDE, etc. But, some years after the country’s first Apple store opened in this very mall, two other establishments appeared that were blatantly obvious attempts1 to capture2 Apple’s very successful retail style. They are a Sony store and this Microsoft place. I’ve never set foot in either one (who buys computers from a store?), but I’d inhaled their aura of fail while walking briskly by, trying to drag the young’uns to the theater to make it to Toy-Tie-In 3D on time.
They both fail in roughly the same ways. First, in being obvious copies. Second, in aping the general look and layout of the Apple stores while getting everything else wrong. It’s like trying to emulate the cool kid in school by buying a similar leather jacket but forgetting to take off your propeller cap. Or something.
I have been inside a couple of the Apple stores, for various reasons (but not to buy a computer). Although I won’t claim I actually enjoyed the experience (genius bar? Sounds like something MSFT would come up with), I can see that they’ve figured out a few things. Critically, the staff deliberately makes itself small and leaves you alone. The products are out there on display, with plenty of space around them, and they hang back and let people play with them. This works pretty well with their stuff, because it’s designed to let untutored people feel they are achieving a meaningful interaction. The whole experience is refreshingly not as horrible as typical electronic retail.
In contrast, both the Sony and Microsoft stores have people right inside the entrance, and sometimes outside the entrance, smearing you with fake smiles and projecting desperation even to someone just striding by.
I was vaguely aware that Microsoft had recently released Windows 8, as well as some new tablet or tablets, and I semi-consciously attributed the unusual presence of humans to a sudden surge of interest from actual potential consumers.
Eventually, perhaps out of boredom, perhaps because my unconscious mind had registered something incongruous and had finally managed to nudge my lethargic, mall-weary consciousness into action, I fixed both eyeballs directly into the abyss.
Why were all the customers wearing blue t-shirts? Oh, I see — the crowd in the store is actually just a clot of Microsoft employees.
And it’s even more staff dominated than it at first appears. In addition to the blueshirts, there is also a smaller squad wearing grey t-shirts, and a few wearing other outfits. If you watch the crowd for a while you can occasionally catch sight of someone not employed by Microsoft, but many of these are about three feet tall and are probably not packing American Express.
Then there is the snappy dresser on the right in a pair of patent-leather shoes. His outfit says “security” and he might be a contractor. His job seems to be to hang out near the entrance and make sure that you see him, so you are less likely to make off with one of the virus-magnets within, because you are so intimidated. He is so bored that he periodically begins to dance to the tacky pop music being pumped out much too loudly by the store’s sound system, suddenly stopping after a few seconds to resume his position at his post. He keeps doing this.
Here are two free tips for the Microsoft corporation:
Tip 1: Don’t have much more staff in the store than shoppers. It’s creepy. Hide them somewhere.
Tip 2: If you plant a guard near the entrance to make people feel uncomfortable, they will feel uncomfortable. Is that what you want? You’ve studied Apple’s retail strategies and even hired people from Apple who’ve been involved in designing their stores in order to copy them. Do you see a doofus in a guard uniform standing at the entrance to any Apple stores? Neither do I.
There’s more. See these two shadowy figures standing in front of the glass? They were more of Microsoft’s finest, and appeared to have been tasked with trying to talk to the passers-by and entice them to sample the wonders within. There were no takers. These young women seemed to be a little giggly and unsure what to do about the lack of interest. Eventually they turned inward, seeking comfort within the bosom of their corporate family. Indeed, all the employees seemed to mainly be paying attention to and conversing with other employees.
Another free tip:
Tip 3: Annoying, poorly trained barkers parked outside your store are annoying, and cause you to resemble the eyebrow-waxing vendor nearby, or the display surrounded by shady hucksters of “electronic cigarettes.” Get rid of them, or give them something to do that doesn’t so clearly embarrass them.
I was shaken from my reverie of horrified fascination by the tugging on my sleeve. The offspring were pointing down the corridor, or passageway, or whatever you might call it, at an alarmingly large crowd 30 feet away. This crowd was gathered around the other Microsoft touchscreen display. The throng was growing, and some of its members appeared to be performing an odd kind of dance.
The little kneecap punchers had to get over there right now to check it out. So we did.
This picture doesn’t capture what I saw at all well. My battery was just about depleted, I needed to keep the phone alive for the glorious moment when the spouse would be finished with the hair thing, and I was afraid to risk even one more shot.
The Microsoft employees played the (original) Gangnam video four times while I stood there, and they had been at it for a while before we showed up. The chronologically more advanced component of the crowd formed a kind of arc, partly encircling a space in front of the screen. This space was occupied by a gaggle of giddy young people, from toddlers to fifth graders. The Ring of Adulthood was snapping pictures, and smiling either indulgently or incredulously. Now and again some of them made half-hearted dance-like motions.
But the inner circle was going wild. They had the moves down, and were putting PSY3 himself to shame. When the video ended they screamed for another play — and another.
I had mixed feelings. I’m pretty sure this stuff is harmless, in moderation. It’s probably not the worst thing many of these kids have seen. But I’m sure many parents would consider some of the imagery in this video to be not perfectly appropriate for their precious children to drink deeply of. They might even feel the same way about some Gangnam imagery as did the crew that worked on the video: that it’s “disgusting” and “nasty4 .” The point surely is not whether we like this video, but whether parents should be allowed to decide for themselves if their young children should be exposed to it. After all, Common Sense Media thinks5 that the video’s “sexual images and degrading message are inappropriate for younger kids.” A bit of that choice was usurped by a few Microsoft employees on this particular evening.
I like the wildly popular Korean sensation. I think it’s hilarious. That doesn’t mean it would be the entertainment of choice for my children. And there is no possible universe where I want a couple of bored Microsoft undergraduate-age employees making these choices for me. If my children were a bit younger this might actually rise to the level of an Issue. As it happens, I’m not overly concerned. But it is a bit disconcerting to see elementary school students prancing about a mall imitating the unsavory gestures of the infamous Elevator Scene.
In the end, I was happy for Microsoft. At last, they had managed to get a crowd to gather excitedly around one of their devices. It’s true that said crowd did rapidly dissipate once the decision was made to finally cease hitting play on Gangnam Style. But, after all, a little borrowed popularity is better than none at all.
Finally, I’d like to add that I have no doubt that that the Microsoft Corporation, as well as the Tysons Corner management, were diligent in securing all the required clearances, and paid the appropriate performance fees, for a public, commercial display of this copyrighted video.
Tip 4: Ensure that your employees have adult supervision at all times.