Microsoft has more than 80 retail stores worldwide, but none of them are quite like the company’s new London flagship store. It’s the best demonstration yet of CEO Satya Nadella’s reinvented Microsoft. Set across three floors, Microsoft has laid out everything it has to offer. That includes Surface devices on every floor, HoloLens headsets, a big Xbox gaming lounge, and even a real-life McLaren Senna sports car that’s hooked up to Forza.
I visited the new London store earlier this week to preview how Microsoft has transformed the venue. It’s set in the heart of Oxford Circus, the world-famous intersection of Regent Street and Oxford Street, Europe’s busiest shopping street. I was expecting a regular Microsoft store like many of the ones I’ve visited in the US, but the building Microsoft has chosen is listed and protected by English Heritage so it has some unique historical twists.
Those twists include lead windows and ceilings from the 1920s that were covered up by the previous occupants, United Colors of Benetton. “As soon as we knew what we had in terms of the history of the building, there was never any doubt that we wanted to retain and restore that,” explains Simon Francis, Microsoft’s director of real estate, in an interview with The Verge. Microsoft restored the beautiful windows and ceilings and even fabricated parts of the front of the store so it matches how the building originally looked when it premiered in 1927. Pillars have also been fabricated to create a unique environment of modern tech inside a building that withstood the Blitz during the Second World War.
Microsoft has spent more than two years developing the Oxford Circus store, and the ground floor serves as a welcoming party to Microsoft’s world. There are giant 4K video walls everywhere you look that are just as striking as those found in Microsoft’s other stores. They rotate through things like Minecraft or Surface promotions, and other products are positioned nearby for you to try, including the 28-inch Studio, Surface Pro 6, and more. There’s also an augmented reality experience of Oxford Circus and a collection desk for online orders.
Tucked away in the corner is where you’ll find the McLaren Senna. The steering wheel and foot pedals are all connected to Forza Motorsport 7, and visitors will be able to jump in and race around the Silverstone track, just in time for the British Grand Prix this weekend. This McLaren has been specially modified, so it moves and vibrates and even has Xbox buttons integrated onto the gas tank. I tried it out, and it was a wild ride until I spun off the track and crashed. It’s definitely challenging.
The second floor is where things get even more interesting. There’s the regular support Answer Desk (Microsoft’s version of Apple’s Genius Bar) and areas to showcase Xbox hardware, laptops from Asus, HP, and Razer, and Surface accessories. You won’t find any laptops from Huawei here, though: Microsoft has to comply with the current US ban. “It’s due to us wanting to make sure we’re very compliant and in line,” explains Chris Capossela, Microsoft’s marketing chief, in an interview with The Verge. “We obviously want to make sure we’re compliant with every government’s regulations and rules.”
Interestingly, there’s a Surface Design Lab here, which will let customers choose from several UK-themed designs and have them etched onto a Surface Type Cover. Microsoft has been experimenting with a number of custom Surface Type Cover designs recently, and it feels like this could eventually be extended to everyone, just like the company’s colorful Xbox One Design Lab controllers.
This floor also includes an iconic red London Post Box, complete with a Surface Pro integrated into it. There’s even a small workspace area, which will host classes for local school students and teachers to get them up to speed on using Minecraft: Education Edition and more. Microsoft has even mounted Surface Hub 2 devices to the walls on this floor, giving everyone a taste of this futuristic collaborative PC.
The real star of the second floor is Microsoft’s gaming area, though. It’s filled with 15 Xbox One stations, fitted out with Xbox-themed gaming chairs, the latest Turtle Beach headsets, and there’s even Acer’s absurd Predator Thronos gaming chair. If you’ve always wanted to sit in a chair that reclines and vibrates in sync with the games you’re playing on three 27-inch monitors, now is your chance. Microsoft also has areas for its Xbox Adaptive Controller, so gamers with disabilities can play freely in the store. This will undoubtedly be a popular part of the store once every school kid in London has figured out you can play Fortnite with all the best kit.
Microsoft’s third and final floor of this store is where things start to get different. Instead of the usual retail space, it has been transformed into an enterprise floor, complete with meeting rooms and event spaces. Microsoft is using this floor to meet with its business customers to demonstrate new services and hardware like HoloLens 2 or Surface Hub 2. It’s less of a retail space and more of a sales pitch to big businesses that operate in London and across Europe.
This area feels more like a renovated part of Microsoft’s corporate campus than the rest of the store, and the company is planning to use it as an event space, too. That will start with an Xbox showcase this weekend so members of the public can try out the latest Gears game or the upcoming xCloud game streaming service. Over time, expect to see Microsoft host more events here and perhaps even some product announcements.
The second and third floors really highlight Microsoft’s focus with this new store. At its heart, it’s a retail space, but it’s also a way for the company to let people see this latest hardware and software in action.
“We’ve been working on getting a store in London for a long time now,” explains Capossela. “The diversity of people coming through this city is crazy. It’s just an awesome location, and London is just one of the obvious cities for us to be in for a flagship store. We’re thrilled to be here.”
Microsoft’s London store is also just a few doors away from Apple’s retail store on Regents Street. Microsoft has a habit of opening its stores very close to Apple stores, but Capossela puts this curious coincidence down to Microsoft and Apple always aiming for premium locations.
“It’s not some grand design. It just kind of happens because we’re both in premium locations,” explains Capossela. “Often, you’ll end up with a Microsoft store close to an Apple Store. We even have customers on a pretty regular basis that will buy a Mac and buy a copy of Windows at the Apple Store, and then they’ll walk four doors down and bring it in and say, ‘Hey, will you guys set up Windows on my Mac for me?’”
Capossela says Microsoft wants this new store to be a place that serves all of the company’s customers. “If all we’re doing is selling Surfaces and Xboxes then we won’t have really brought the vision to life,” he says. “It really is a brand experience. It’s a way for millions of people to come and touch the brand.”
More than 4 million people visit Oxford Street each week, so Microsoft’s new London store is going to be busy. This isn’t just a temporary project, either. Microsoft has put a significant amount of effort into renovating the space. “We think it really is the sort of best in class for us,” says Capossela. “We think it’s the sort of ideal model.”
That doesn’t mean we’re about to see lots of new stores popping up in the UK or across Europe, though. Microsoft isn’t commenting on further store plans, but it’s clear that any future flagship stores will be based on this mix of Surface, gaming, and enterprise that Microsoft is focusing on in London. It’s everything Microsoft now cares about, all under one roof.
Photography by Tom Warren / The Verge