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Best Buy + Windows Guru = Apple Store experience?

By Eric Lai
September 11, 2008 12:00 PM ET

"Most OEMs have used these types of individuals, but they have been used on a spot or promotional basis. The presence has not had a lasting effect, as they are typically in-store for a few days and then gone," Baker said.

One way Windows Gurus will differ from Apple Geniuses is that they are not intended to be sources of free technical support for existing Vista users.

"The guru role is to help sell Windows-based PCs. It is not to be an alternative tech support channel for Microsoft, as this has no financial return beyond improved customer satisfaction," Baker said.

Such a plan would conflict with the paid tech support services such as Best Buy's Geek Squad and Circuit City's Firedog. But consumer's are still likely to be disappointed by the distinction, Whalin said.

Bradner believes Best Buy will be liberal with its interpretation, knowing that a Windows Guru who can answer Vista tech questions "is a positive even if it doesn't lead to an immediate sale."

"[Best Buy] realizes that you need to build a better relationship with your best customers. They are investing in bringing people back to the store," she said. The bigger risk, she said, is that Windows Gurus "become lightning rods for customers' frustrations with Vista."

Been there, done that

This isn't the first time Microsoft has had pre-sales reps in stores. Through an agency, Microsoft hired 200 people for the 2004 holiday season to unsuccessfully help pitch its MSN Direct Smart Watches, which Microsoft officially stopped selling earlier this year.

Gurus will be contractors employed by Mosaic Sales Solutions Inc., a Dallas company that has provided similar services for many other vendors.

Whalin thinks that Mosaic is "very good," but he said Microsoft should make gurus official employees. "You want them to bleed Microsoft," he said.

If the initial experiments with gurus are successful, Microsoft may expand the program. But experts say that gurus alone won't change the game with Apple. Rather, if it really wants to duplicate Apple's success, Microsoft might reconsider the apparently once-considered option of opening its own Microsoft Stores.

When first opened in 2001, experts were skeptical of the Apple Stores. Apple was early in its comeback. The post-dot-com U.S. retail economy was weak. And other efforts, such as Gateway Inc.'s eventually shuttered Gateway Country stores, were not encouraging.

"I give them two years before they're turning out the lights on a very painful and expensive mistake," one retail consultant told BusinessWeek at the time.

Apple now has 230 stores worldwide, including its most recent: one opened in Beijing just before the Olympic Games.

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