Is the Microsoft Surface tablet due for a retail sales surge?

Most people believe that sales of Microsoft's Surface tablet have been modest at best. But there are some indications that the tablet may be due for a big surge in sales through the end of the year and beyond.

Microsoft hasn't released any sales figures for the Surface, so there's no way to know how well they're selling. But early indications are that they aren't selling well at all. The Boston-based brokerage firm Detwiler Fenton, for example, expects Microsoft to sell only 500,000 to 600,000 of them in the December quarter, compared to Microsoft's expectations of one million to two million.

And Piper Jaffray analysts staked out a Microsoft Store during Black Friday at the Mall of America, the most-visited mall in the world, and found that not a single Surface tablet was sold during the several hours they were watching.

An IDC report, meanwhile, said that the Surface's $500 selling price will make it very hard for Microsoft to sell many of them. The report warned:

"Price points are critical in tablets, and Microsoft and its partners will have a tough time winning a share of consumer wallet with price points starting at $500."

The most recent statistics from the data analytics firm Chitika found that users of the Surface accounted for less than one percent  of all North American tablet traffic. And even Steve Ballmer, often a master of hype and bombast, has admitted that Surface sales have been modest.

But there are some indications that things are about to change. The biggest change is that the tablets are finally going to be readily available in retail stores, including Best Buy, Staples, and possibly others as well. Until now, they've only been on sale in Microsoft retail stores and in Microsoft's online store. That's puzzling, because Microsoft is spending many millions in TV and other ads, and those ads typically don't tell people where to buy the Surface. So when people show up at either brick-and-mortar retailers or online retailers, the Surface is nowhere to be found.

The widespread availability of Surface tablets will clearly help sales, possibly significantly. And there's also some evidence that there's pent-up demand for Windows 8 touch devices. Steven Baker of the NPD Group told Computerworld that there appears to be significant demand for touch devices, and not a lot of widespread availability. He said:

"What's selling is touch. The problem is that there really aren't many [touchscreen devices] in the stores."

He added that Microsoft probably saw that touch devices were selling, and "They may have said, 'Look, this is one of the best new devices with touch, touch is selling, let's get it in front of people now.'"

There's no doubt that greater availability and visibility of the Surface tablet will help sales. The question is whether that can trump a sizable starting price of $499, which has no doubt hurt sales until now.

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