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Wednesday, July 29, 2009, 06:45 am PT (09:45 am ET)

First Apple, Microsoft retail stores to face off in California

Microsoft plans to compete directly against an already-established Apple Store in Mission Viejo, Calif., as the Windows maker announced this week its first two planned retail store locations, scheduled to open this fall.

The company also plans to open a store in Scottsdale, Ariz before the year is out. Microsoft chose the two towns because they're "hot markets" with the right demographics, Kim Stocks, a corporate communications director at the company, told the Associated Press.

The retail locations will sell Microsoft software and first-party hardware, such as Zunes and Xbox 360 consoles. Third-party Windows software and Xbox games will also be available.

The Shops at Mission Viejo, where Microsoft intends to break into the retail game, already houses an Apple Store. But Scottsdale Fashion Square would be solely Microsoft territory.

Once one of the cornerstones of Apple's early retail efforts, real estate expert George Blankenship, has switched sides and is now providing advice to Microsoft on plans for its own stores. Blankenship is now consulting with the company for its planned retail endeavor.

Blankenship, in working for Apple, was aggressive in store placement. From 2001 onwards, he insisted on placing stores in high-traffic areas and frequently in locations that were considered upscale shopping districts. The original Tokyo flagship store, for example, was placed in the fashion district of Ginza rather than in the technology haven of Akihabara. Apple counted on the sheer volume of business overcoming any costs associated with running the store in such an expensive space.

Last week, Microsoft's tentative plans for its retail locations leaked online. It exposed that the company intends to imitate Apple stores, down to their layouts and even the presence of a dedicated "Guru Bar" for help.

The proposal, from design consulting firm Lippicott, includes a bright, open layout where the center and edges of the store are dominated by computers showing the "seamless" link between Windows PCs and peripherals. Themed areas would push specific products, such as home theater PCs, netbooks or Windows Mobile and Zune devices.

The reference store would have a Guru Bar — labeled as an Answer Bar or Windows Bar — that would directly copy the Genius Bars at Apple stores and let customers make appointments either for help or just to ask questions. The number of products would be kept to a minimum to avoid the confusion present in stores where most Windows PCs are sold today.