Apples to Windows comparison shopping

Apple will soon open its first retail store in Paris, while Microsoft plans to open ... a café?

For native English speakers in Paris, shopping in local boutiques or ordering a drink in a café can be a fraught experience if the staff only speak French.

Later this year, though, two U.S. companies will turn the tables on the Parisians, preparing their own linguistic retail challenges in English.

One, a store named after a fruit, will have a bar that doesn't serve fruit juice -- although staff will advise you how best to use some high-tech gadgets made with sheet glass. The other, a bar called Windows, will serve you a juice, but won't sell you a window -- or Windows.

Enough of the mystery: the fruity store is, of course, Apple's long-awaited direct entry into French retailing, while the bar is a temporary promotional gimmick for Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system.

The sites chosen by the two companies speak volumes about their brand image and the customers they're hoping to woo.

Apple's first French retail store will be in the Carrousel du Louvre, a marble-tiled shopping mall beneath the courtyard of Paris' most famous art museum. Neighboring retail outlets sell expensive perfume, watches, CDs and Swarovski crystal bling. It caters mostly to rich tourists and those shopping for flashy gifts. Rue Saint Honoré, a few hundred meters to the northwest, is where the really rich spend their time and money.

The Carrousel mall is known for its inverted glass pyramid, an elaborate light well-designed by architect I.M. Pei as a counterpoint to his other pyramid, this one the right way up, above the public entrance to the Louvre museum. A corridor links the inverted pyramid in the mall to the other pyramid and the museum.

Apple's store, said to have over 700 square meters of floor-space on two levels, will open directly off the square containing the inverted pyramid, in an area of the mall that previously served as the entrance to the food court. Apple pie, though, will no longer be on the menu: the Genius Bar, a fixture of Apple retail stores, only serves up technical advice.

The Carrousel will give Apple one commercial advantage over rival PC retailers: It is open seven days a week, in a nation that still imposes tough restrictions on Sunday trading outside designated tourist areas.

The entrance and windows of the future store are still shrouded in black, and the company is still recruiting store managers, personal shopping counselors and product experts for the Genius bar. The rumor on Apple fan sites is that it will open on Oct. 25, but an Apple spokeswoman would say only that the store will open before the end of the year.

While the Apple store's opening date is still a secret, that of the Windows 7 Café is emblazoned across its façade. Like it's operating system namesake, the Windows 7 café will be open for business on Oct. 22.

It's in a somewhat sketchier setting than the Apple store, on a noisy, traffic-filled street (Microsoft called it "lively and busy") sandwiched between the inside-out modern art museum at Beaubourg and the red-light district of rue Saint Denis. The bar previously at this address, 47 boulevard de Sébastopol, was called Wet Willie's, a Tex-Mex joint with a reputation for cheap cocktails and jello shots.

These days, the area smells of fried chicken, not chilli. There's a KFC on the corner, while not far off in the other direction there's an outpost of another U.S. chain, Starbucks. In the no-man's-land between the two, the orange storefront of Milk advertises the 200 PCs available in its cavernous underground Internet Café.

The street, one of the main north-south routes across town, is packed bumper to bumper with cars, but during office hours the sidewalk is mostly deserted and many of the neighboring stores are shuttered. The few pedestrians around are mostly on the cross-street, scuttling to or from the nearby metro stations.

At night and on weekends, however, the scene changes. The district's bars and bistros are packed, and hordes of teenagers descend on the stores selling jeans, basketball shoes and other clothing that flourish in the area.

Microsoft's café has changed its look since its Wet Willie days. Now the window is framed in matte black, while an Xbox-green overlay obscures the windows. Inside, though, the walls and floor are still bare, the wiring unfinished and the carpenters still at work. A promised free Wi-Fi network is still not in operation.

The company plans to sell coffee and fruit-juice cocktails at the café, but no technology products, according to a Microsoft spokeswoman. On the other hand, customers will be able to experience Microsoft software and services including Windows 7, Windows Mobile, and Windows Live, she said.

Microsoft's move into catering will be short-lived -- just a few weeks or months -- but this won't be the last time we see a Microsoft storefront: it is building a network of retail stores in the U.S., reportedly similar in feel to those of Apple -- and perhaps, other reports say, with some former Apple staff too.

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Peter Sayer

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