Windows 8 Secret Shopper: Clerks Nail OS Abilities, Whiff on App Store

After years of doing "secret shopper" stories, we don't expect much  from retail sales clerks. So color us surprised that, on day one of the Windows 8 era, associates at three New York-area retail outlets we visited were well-versed in Microsoft's new OS and able to provide helpful, accurate answers to most of  our questions while demonstrating its key features. The only area where a couple of associates fell short was in overstating the capabilities of Microsoft's new app store, with one Microsoft salesman claiming that it already has 100,000 apps and a Best Buy clerk telling us that the store will be coming to Android and iOS.

Our test was hardly scientific as we just had time to visit three stores: a Best Buy and a Staples in Manhattan, along with a Microsoft Store in New Jersey. However, this small sample gave us the strong impression that Microsoft and its retail partners have done a lot to educate their sales staffs on the benefits of Windows 8.

Microsoft Store (Freehold, NJ)

We visited the crowded Freehold Microsoft Store just before 6 p.m. on Friday to see how sales representatives talked about the Surface tablet and its Windows RT operating system. Before we went, we were concerned that sales associates might not be able to articulate the differences between Windows RT and Windows 8 or that they might tell us that we could run desktop apps on the Surface, when RT simply doesn't allow that. Fortunately, our fears were misplaced.

We first spoke with an energetic sales rep named Bryan about the Surface. When we asked him for a demo, he started by showing us the both the Touch and Type Covers and explained the difference, saying that he prefers the latter because "I like the idea of feeling the keys when you type."

Brian then walked us through the Windows RT operating system on the Surface, demonstrating everything from the Live Tiles on the Start screen to the Charms Menu, the Search feature. We asked him what "RT" stands for and he explained that the OS is for ARM processors, cited the preloaded Office 2013 preview as an advantage for the tablet and then browsed through the different app categories in the Windows Store with us. When we asked him whether we could run Photoshop on the Surface, he accurately admitted that we would need to wait for the next version of the Surface if we wanted to load "desktop" apps.

He then explained the different configurations of Surface available to us, accurately quoting their prices. We asked him whether the Surface is the best Windows tablet and he diplomatically stated that "right now, this is going to be one of the best options," and talked about the expandable microSD card slot and Gorilla glass as benefits, but he also mentioned that they have an ASUS tablet (the Vivo Tab). When we asked about the Surface's battery life, he said that it lasts approximately 6 and a half hours on a charge, which is actually less than the 7 hours and 39 minutes it got on our tests.

After he let us handle the Surface a bit and reassured us that the kickstand would allow us to use the tablet on our laps, we thanked him and he told us, in all honesty, that we might want to wait for the Surface Pro to come out, because we'd asked about running desktop programs like Photoshop. He said that the Pro will probably be released in January.

Later, we talked to another sales associate in another part of the store who also correctly answered our question when we asked if the Surface could run all of our apps and told us that we could only use programs from the Windows Store on it, but if we wanted to run desktop apps like Photoshop, "for now," we would need to buy a Windows 8 computer. However, he said that Adobe might come out with Photoshop for Surface, though it has not been announced yet. When we asked him how many apps are in the Windows Store, he gave us the only truly inaccurate answer we got from Microsoft by saying that there are over 100,000 apps in the store when that number was just over 5,000 as of October 26th.

Best Buy (Union Square, NY)

Best Buy doesn't stock any Windows RT tablets yet so went there to talk strictly about Windows 8. Sales rep Singh, who was wearing a Windows 8 t-shirt, extolled the benefits of the Start screen and its live tiles. When we asked him whether there was still a desktop in Windows 8, he showed us two different ways to get to desktop mode, including IE 10's "view on desktop" option which spawns a website in the desktop version of IE.

We also asked Singh if we'd be able to use Windows 8 on a computer without a touch screen and he showed us how to use the mouse to navigate around the OS. He also explained how we can resize the tiles or make them static rather than live. He then turned the conversation to Windows 8 apps, but he strangely described them as "Amazing Apps," which is not a brand name, but he did say correctly that they are available through the Windows Store.

However, when we asked Singh how the Windows Store differs from Google Play, we got a strange answer. He said that the Windows Store is "on par" with Google Play (true in theory, though Google Play has a lot more apps), but that "Microsoft will be rolling out Android devices as well as iOS just in case you want to use some of those apps on the Microsoft store on your Droid or iOS device." To our knowledge, Microsoft has no plans to roll out versions of the Windows store for Android or iOS, though to be fair, the company has confirmed that it will make versions of Office for iOS and Android.

Singh then explained the benefits of Windows 8's synchronization features and cloud storage via SkyDrive. We also asked him how to shut down a computer and he walked us through the Charms menu, showing us the settings menu which lets you shut down.

We asked him what the benefits of buying a Windows 8 device are over a Windows 8 one and he told us that all the newer computers will have Windows 8 so, if we want the latest and greatest hardware, we'll need to buy a system with Windows 8. We also questioned Singh about the benefits of Windows 8 as opposed to iOS and he said that a lot of programs run better on Windows and that every Windows 7 program will run on Windows 8 so that there's no "drawback" to upgrading.

Staples (Union Square, NY)

At Staples, all the employees were wearing Windows 8 shirts. We approached an associate named Tom and asked him to walk us through the new OS. His initial response was just to point at the tiles on the Start screen and say that it is "the only difference between this and the old Windows."

When we asked Tom where the desktop was, he correctly showed us how to launch it from the Start screen. We then questioned him about the Start button to which he replied that the Start menu is now always accessible because you can just hit the Windows key or drag your finger from right to left to open the Charms menu (which has Start on it) and you can get back to your tiles.

Tom described several benefits of Windows 8, including the ability pin live tiles to the Start screen and see updates right there. He also said that Windows 8 can run all Windows 7 desktop apps which is true and then he pointed out that the desktop mode has a new feature which lets you see a more detailed time-to-copy prediction along with a new attractive graph during  file transfers.

We then asked Tom for his opinion about how Windows 8 compares to Mac OS X and he voiced his opinion that the latest version of OS X just hasn't done anything particularly new, but this version of Windows is a "big move" because it is optimized for touch. He then spoke about the benefits of having a single logon that syncs your settings across multiple computers so you can log into a friend's computer and have all of your preferences set.

Tom seemed especially hopeful about the future of the Windows Store, saying that "everything is going to be added" to it over time and that the combination of the Store and account sync would be truly compelling for users. "You’re going to get to a point where eventually you’ll just login to any device and everything will be right there for you," he said. "This is the first step in a progression; this is the re-imagining of how everything should be."

Final Thoughts

We have to take our experiences with a heavy tile of salt, because we visited stores in a huge market on the very day of product launch when sales reps are probably on their best behavior. We have no way of knowing today whether the clerks at these or other chain stores will be giving worse answers a few weeks from now. Still, we were very impressed with the amount of knowlege each sales rep had, which can only be attributable to extensive training by Microsoft and / or its partners.