Microsoft’s “new approach to retail,” announced last Friday, involves closing all of its 83 retail stores.
The Verge reports that the closures were already planned for 2021, but hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Microsoft opened its stores in 2009, clearly inspired by Apple’s influential retail strategy. You could check out the latest Surface and Xbox gear at a Microsoft Store, see some newer PCs from other vendors, and ask staff for help with software or purchase decisions.
Some outlets are chiding Microsoft for having stuck with its stores this long. Some are wistful for the chance to see the latest MS tech in-person. Very few mention that, without Microsoft Stores, repair options for buyers of Surface, Xbox, and other Microsoft devices just got more painful.
As of this writing, Microsoft still suggests on its “How to get service for a Surface” page that customers bring devices into a Microsoft Store first. “Microsoft Stores can assist with a variety of services including repairs […] in selected locations.” Sending an out-of-warranty device to Microsoft in the U.S. can cost from $160 to $900; at the Microsoft Store, “[T]he price will vary depend on the type of repair,” the support page states. It typically takes 3-12 days to return a device after you ship it to Microsoft; at the Store, “[W]e strive to have repairs completed in the same day dependent on the extent of your repair.”
So unless Microsoft offers an alternative means of local hands-on assessment and repair, getting a Surface fixed is going to be more painful with Stores closed—Microsoft itself says as much. And it’s happening just as Microsoft is taking significant strides toward repairable, upgrade-friendly devices.
A Microsoft representative stated that Microsoft will invest in making its online Store a better place to receive support and training. In a blog post, David Porter, corporate vice president at Microsoft, noted that Store employees will transition to remote service positions and offering “virtual customer support.” I asked the representative about how the Store closures affect mail-in repair costs, timings, and policies; I will update this post if I hear back.
The obvious pain of mail-in service is that you lose access to your device for days or weeks, and put it in the hands of delivery services, versus driving to a mall or downtown location to grab it, possibly the next day. It’s also tricky for a customer to mail in a device if, say, its battery is swollen. In that case, the Microsoft Store representative was quite helpful to my source, essentially vouching for his technically-not-recalled device and ensuring their replacement request made it to the right people. As most people reading this are aware, doing this over the phone, or through a contact form, is always trickier.
This is not to say that all Microsoft Stores performed in-depth repairs on the spot; like Apple Stores, their was likely a limit, beyond which devices went to a service center. But having a Microsoft Store nearby meant that, at the least, someone could tell you if your problem was an $800 board issue, or battery swap that was less than $100.
PC World’s Mark Hachman was one of the few we saw highlight this issue, even with a specific example:
Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 had numerous bugs, and I’ve brought our review unit in for servicing before. One of our overheating 15-inch models apparently had a discrete GPU whose thermal paste failed over time, which we worked out at the support counter.
The broader effect of the Stores’ closure is a distributed downward pressure on repair sensibilities. Make no mistake, we’re happy to offer as many parts and repair guides for Microsoft Surface Books and Laptops, Surface tablets, and Xbox consoles as we can. But customers who arrive at Microsoft’s mail-in repair options through web search, or don’t know they can fix some devices themselves, or happen to own one of the most unrepairable devices we’ve seen—it’s not hard to see how they could land on “just buy something else” as the most viable option.
Most pundits considered Microsoft’s stores a transparent, ultimately futile attempt to imitate Apple’s success. But it was a net good to bring local points of support and repair service to more than 80 places around the U.S. and the world. Apple Stores don’t just sell MacBooks and Apple Watches, they assure customers that, should something go terribly wrong, there’s a place they can go. A highly profitable, tightly controlled place to go, but a place you can get to, nonetheless. There’s probably even a Five Guys nearby.
PC World’s Hachman offers some open questions about where Microsoft might go from here with supporting customers with service and repair:
Can Microsoft take advantage of consumer smartphones to diagnose problems? Can it use remote-access technologies to do the same? Does it invest in local computer repair shops as authorized service dealers?
That sounds great, particularly that last idea. So does offering viable repair parts, tools, and manuals openly to repair shops and customers. This is, if nothing else, an opportunity for Microsoft to try something new.