Microsoft’s first retail store in Canada opens today, here’s what it looks like

We attended a media event yesterday to see a sneak preview of the brand new Microsoft Store in Yorkdale Mall, opening today in the under-construction new wing.

Among other promitional activities going on to celebrate the opening, Microsoft has invited Wayne Gretzky to visit the store and play some Kinect Hockey with a few lucky kids. Later tonight, the band Train will be performing in a makeshift tent that has taken over part of the mall’s parking lot. It’s all very charming, but when the dust settles, the question still remains: does Microsoft need its own store?

The question has ostensibly already been answered: while this is Canada’s first retail outlet for the Redmond-based company, the company has some 30 permanent stores open in the United States, and over 20 more “pop-up” locations in both the U.S. and Canada.

As you might expect, the Microsoft Store takes a few lessons from its Cupertino rival, but one must not mistake inspiration for mere facsimile. Yes, there are a number of touch devices allayed on tables ready for perusal; yes, the caffeinated employees wear colourful t-shirts and friendly smiles; yes, there is the equivalent of a Genius Bar known as the Answer Desk, with service members ready to troubleshoot your every need.

But the Microsoft store is less about Microsoft products than it is about showcasing all the various ways in which the company can enrich your life through desktop or mobile computing. To be honest, I found the store to be far more inviting and less sterile than the average Apple Store. From the gorgeous wooden tables to the individual Xbox console units to the wrap-around screens on the perimeter, the Microsoft Store feels lively and exciting without appearing desperate.

Of course, the Surface RT tablet and Windows 8 laptops appear front and centre in the store. And rightfully so. Barring any preconceived notions about the Surface as a computing device, there is no doubt that it makes for a striking centrepiece, one on which Microsoft employees can show off the various improvements made to its brand-new operating system. The store provides free WiFi for guests, and users can take a seat at one of the many provided tables to relax, chat or just stare at the abundance.

Mobile gets a pretty fair showing in the Microsoft Store, too. Not only has the company repurposed its “Windows Phone Challenge” content for in-store trials, but it allows prospective shoppers to touch and use both the Nokia Lumia 920 on Rogers and the Windows Phone 8X by HTC on Bell and Rogers. More phones will be added to the roster as they’re released, so you can expect the Samsung ATIV S on TELUS and Rogers to be showcased quite soon.

The retail store seems to be the only place one can pick up a case for his or her brand new Windows Phone 8 device, too. Microsoft sells first-party and third-party covers for the Windows Phone 8X, all of which were between $20 and $25. The Lumia 920 doesn’t have any official cases, but an employee I spoke to said that they will be stocking as many phone accessories as they can to cover the growing demand.

Microsoft also sells Touch and Type covers for the Surface, along with cases from Incipio. In fact, it seems like Incipio is one of the premiere launch partners for the Microsoft Store, as they have a huge presence in the accessories section.

When we asked the store manager what at prices we can expect various products to be sold, she said that Microsoft will never charge more than its partners, and will occasionally undercut them by a few dollars. In other words, you’re not going to find any bargains or huge sales in the Microsoft Store, but you are unlikely to be overcharged, too.

Whether the Microsoft Store succeeds or fails isn’t really the point. The store will likely never be a money-maker for Microsoft the way the Apple Store is for its namesake. But having a real-world presence, and being able to showcase why Windows 8, or Windows Phone 8, is better than the competition, is of strategic importance to Microsoft, and one that we can’t quantify with sales figures or activation numbers.

If you’re a resident of Toronto, the Microsoft Store is now open at Yorkdale Mall. While no other plans for retail stores in Canada have been announced, we wouldn’t be surprised to hear about one or two more in the coming months. There are also pop-up stores in Edmonton, Burnaby and Vancouver, in addition to Toronto’s Eaton Centre.