Retailers share part of the blame for poor Windows 8 sales and the ensuing decline of PC shipments, according to analysts.
Microsoft's radical overhaul of Windows has been cited by some to explain plummeting PC shipments, but the very organizations whose best interest is served in selling those systems were at least partly at fault.
"Windows 8 brought a brand new UI [user interface] that had not fundamentally changed since DOS," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, in a blog post Tuesday. "[So] how did big-box retail respond? The same way they have for the last 20 years."
Moorhead was critical of big retailers -- Best Buy is the largest in the U.S. -- for not modifying how they sold PCs when Windows 8 landed on their stores' shipping docks.
"There exists a massive disconnect between what consumers want to and need to know about the latest generation of PCs" and what retailers did, and continue to do, to sell those PCs," Moorhead argued, ticking off a list of retailing blunders, such as tying down devices so that they can't be hefted for weight, PCs that can't be turned off and on again to gauge boot speed, and a lack of touchscreen displays.
"The stores just do not provide, for many, the environment that meets the needs of someone trying to buy a new Windows 8 notebook," said Moorhead.
Stephen Baker of the NPD Group, and an expert in technology retailing, agreed. "Nothing happened at launch," Baker said of in-store changes when Windows 8 hit. "Everyone treated it as if was another Windows 7."
And the same old-same old was definitely not what was necessary. "Does the in-store experience need an upgrade [because of Windows 8]?" Baker asked. "Absolutely. Are the in-store mechanisms up to snuff? Absolutely not."
But Baker disputed the idea that retailers alone were to blame for how they sold Windows 8. The operating system was so different, he said, that retailers were either unprepared or unsure how to merchandise the goods.
And in some cases, they didn't even have the goods -- and largely still don't -- to sell.
"Part of the problem was driven by lack of product," said Baker. "There weren't very many high-quality products available. At launch maybe four out of 40 SKUs [stock-keeping units] in retail were touch. That's headed north. By back-to-school and the holidays, it'll be 15 out of 40. But we need to see an upgrade on that, too."
Microsoft must assume some of the blame for the poor retailing, Baker implied. But rather than directly criticize Microsoft, he simply noted, "They did not do anything different" at Windows 8's launch to prepare retailers or assist them. "But hindsight is really easy six months later."
The bold direction of Windows 8, with its emphasis on touch as a selling point, presented retailers with problems they'd never encountered -- detachable displays for example -- a core feature of the so-called "convertible" devices that morph from a notebook into a tablet by swiveling the screen to a new position or removing it entirely. "That isn't the norm of what we've had in the market before," Baker said, referring to retailers' confusion over how to secure those detachable screens or show the mutating nature of the device in the absence of a salesperson.
Baker highlighted the end-cap -- one of those displays at the end of an aisle -- that Lenovo and Intel created for the former's IdeaPad Yoga as an example of a top-notch retail presentation for a Windows 8 device.
"You can't go to market with the same old stuff," he asserted.
Moorhead cited Apple's retail stores as the right way to promote and sell today's computers -- and other computing devices, like tablets. "Interestingly, I never see the [retail problems with Windows 8 notebooks] at an Apple store. Never, ever," Moorhead said. "I can sit at the Apple store there for hours and literally do a test drive like I would a car."
Microsoft, of course, has its own, albeit much smaller, chain of retail outlets, designed in Apple-esque fashion and staffed with many more salespeople than a big-box store. Even so, Baker downplayed their impact.
"They face the same challenges [with Windows 8] as most retail stores," Baker said of Microsoft's outlets. "They may have more people, but they have the same challenges. And they're not a unit volume driver."
He did have hope, however. "Anything Microsoft does learn about what can be successful, I expect they're trying to port as quickly as possible to the retail industry overall," Baker said.
And retail, while contributing to Windows 8's problems, perhaps even to the drop in PC sales, is the least of the industry's worries at the moment.
"I really don't think that [Windows 8's slow uptake] has had a lot do with merchandising," Baker said. "It's far more to do with the trajectory that the marketplace was already on."
Retail analyst Stephen Baker of the NPD Group pointed to Lenovo's end-cap for its IdeaPad Yoga as an example of what retailers need to do to sell Windows 8 to confused consumers. (Image: Intel.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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