Microsoft today said it would open nearly three dozen 'pop-up' stores this fall in U.S. and Canadian malls and shopping centers to sell its own hardware and software.
Although the company declined to confirm that those stores will sell the Surface for Windows RT tablet -- the name of the Microsoft-made device slated to launch Oct. 26 -- one analyst expects that the tablet will be on the shelves.
"This is certainly attached to the Windows 8, Surface and Windows Phone 8 strategy," said Stephen Baker, a veteran retail analyst with the NPD Group. "They're short of [permanent] stores right now, they're not even where they want to be, but this will let them get more of the notice and interest they want to get [for the Surface]."
The 32 stores, which will appear in U.S. cities such as Atlanta, Denver, New York and Portland, and in Canadian cities as well -- Edmonton and Toronto, for example -- will be temporary outlets open only during the holiday season, not permanent locations like the two-dozen brick-and-mortar Microsoft stores already in operation.
"These holiday stores will allow customers to have hands-on experience with and identify the best Microsoft products for their personal and gift-giving needs," Microsoft said in a statement today.
Microsoft declined to say when the 32 pop-up stores would open, or if some or all would be ready when the company launches Windows 8 and the Surface RT next month.
When Microsoft unveiled the Surface tablets in June, it said it would sell the devices only through its own retail stores and on its own website. The additional 32 pop-up stores announced today more than doubles the number of physical outlets where it can demonstrate and sell the new tablet.
But Baker questioned the pop-up strategy.
"You usually don't see electronics in pop-up stores," said Baker. "You do for fashion.... Target's done this a few times..., but I wonder what with the pricing of the products and the amount of service Microsoft would like to provide, how much they can do in a pop-up."
Still, Baker said the move is, "Definitely very interesting and forward-thinking."
Microsoft did not spell out whether the holiday stores would offer the same services as the permanent locations, such as the "Answer Desk," Microsoft's version of an Apple store's "Genius Bar," or personal training sessions. In an email accompanying today's statement, however, a Microsoft spokesperson said, "The holiday stores continue to offer customers the opportunity to learn new technology skills and get the most out of their Microsoft-enabled devices."
In July, Kevin Turner, Microsoft's chief operating officer, told company partners to expect pop-up stores during the holidays.
Microsoft's sales strategy for the Surface requires it to walk a fine line, said Baker. "It's more complicated for them than, say, Amazon," he said, referring to the e-tailer that has struck deals with brick-and-mortar chains to sell its Kindle tablets. "Because Microsoft has both OEM and retail partners, they have to tread lightly."
While retailers would love to get their hands on the Surface -- Baker said demand will be high for the Microsoft-branded tablets -- the company's OEM partners would feel differently. "Not making deals with retailers will make their OEMs feel a little better," said Baker.
Some computer makers -- called "original equipment manufacturers," or OEMs -- have voiced their displeasure at Microsoft stepping on their turf.
The pop-up stores Microsoft announced today were:
U.S.: Atlanta (Perimeter Mall); Aventura, Fla. (Aventura Mall); Beachwood, Ohio (Beachwood Place); Bethesda, Md. (Montgomery Mall); Braintree, Mass. (South Shore Plaza); Charlotte, NC (Southpark Mall); Columbia, Md. (Mall in Columbia); Denver (Cherry Creek Shopping Center); Durham, NC (Streets at Southpoint); Frisco, Texas (Stonebriar Centre Mall); Garden, City, NY (Roosevelt Field Mall); Glendale, Calif. (Glendale Galleria); Indianapolis (Fashion Mall at Keystone); Las Vegas (Fashion Show Mall); Miami (Dadeland Mall); Nashville (Mall at Green Hills); Natick, Mass. (Natick Collection); New York City (Time Warner Center -- The Shops at Columbus Circle); Oklahoma City (Penn Square Mall); Paramus, NJ (Westfield Garden State Plaza); Pittsburgh (Ross Park Mall); Portland, Ore. (Washington Square); San Antonio (North Star Mall); San Francisco (San Francisco Centre); St. Louis (Saint Louis Galleria); Tulsa, Okla. (Woodland Hills Mall); West Hartford, Conn. (Westfarms Mall); Woodlands, Texas (Woodlands Mall)
Canada: Burnaby, British Columbia (Metropolis at Metrotown); Edmonton, Alberta (West Edmonton Mall); Toronto (Eaton Centre); Vancouver, BC (Oakridge Centre)
Microsoft has not yet released prices for the Surface for Windows RT tablet.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is email@example.com.