Microsoft’s pulling out all the stops this week.

Not only does Windows 7 roll out on Oct. 22, but Microsoft is planning on launching the first of its retail locations on the same date, starting with its store at Scottsdale Fashion Square in Arizona.

An ad circulated in the local Arizona Republic newspaper (Engadget has a shot of the page here) proclaims a “Grand Opening” at 10 a.m. on Oct. 22. The first 1,000 visitors will be given a gift bag, along with tickets to an Ashley Tisdale concert. Apparently Ashley Tisdale is a pop star who got her start with something called “High School Musical.” (I’m going to refrain from any jokes lest a mob of upset 14-year-old girls beat me to a wisecracking pulp with their pink smartphones the next time I step outside.)

According to the ad, Microsoft will also offer a free HP-D1660 printer, along with a copy of Microsoft Office Home & Student, to anyone who purchases a new PC. I don’t think Steve Jobs is quaking in his New Balance sneakers quite yet, but I’m sure if you offer enough free stuff, you’ll fill the store on the first day and generate short-term buzz. Microsoft probably hopes that hype for the first store will boost the prospects for the second one in California.

“Microsoft is on track to follow that with an opening at The Shops at Mission Viejo in California,” a Microsoft spokesperson told me. “No other dates or locations have been announced.”

The California outlet will be the one to watch, given that it’s opening in close proximity to an Apple Store. Microsoft’s long-stated plan has been to challenge Apple head-on by opening a portion of its own “retail experiences” close to its rival’s storefronts; in addition, some of its early concept designs leaked online (via Gizmodo) featured Apple-style store areas, including an “Answers Bar” (reminiscent of the Apple Stores’ Genius Bar) and an event area.

Another Microsoft spokesperson told me in August that both the Arizona and California locations were “hot markets.” In a bit of purely unsupported conjecture, I’m going to suggest that both were chosen because they represent a safe middle area for a soft launch: Scottsdale and Mission Viejo have more consumers than, say, Bozeman, Mont.–but if the retail experiment turns out to be a failure, those locations won’t present the same sort of high-profile embarrassment as if Microsoft, say, opened an empty store across from Apple’s Fifth Avenue monolith.

From a personnel perspective, Microsoft is doing everything in its power to prevent such a failure. It hired consulting company Lippincott, which has clients that include McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, to generate ideas about the actual retail components; it also hired George Blankenship, who helped launch Apple’s own stores in 2001, to help guide the store rollout.

Microsoft’s competition goes beyond than Apple, though. When it retails PCs and accessories, it maneuvers itself onto a collision course with other box retailers such as Best Buy; marketing Xbox-related products places it in competition with same, plus GameStop and the like. In a holiday season in which every retailer will be fighting tooth and nail to make up at least some of the fiscal ground lost to the recession, will Microsoft be able to hold its own?


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