Retailers Hope Vista Boosts Sales

Some retailers are planning to use tactics normally reserved for must-have electronics such as new video-game consoles when the Windows Vista computer operating system goes on sale to the public next week.

CompUSA Inc. will throw open the doors of its 230 stores shortly before midnight for the Jan. 30 launch and start selling the first Vista-equipped desktop and notebook computers the minute it can do so under its arrangement with Vista's maker, Microsoft Corp.

Best Buy Co. plans to do the same thing at about 15 of its stores. Both chains are promising deals on PCs and notebooks to create opening-night fever.

The retailers hope that the release of Vista, Microsoft's biggest operating-system launch in many years, will help extend a strong holiday sales season for computers.

Still, no one is expecting the kind of buzz that surrounded the launch of Windows 95 a decade ago, when people -- and not all of them geeks -- camped outside stores before the product went on sale at midnight.

"It was a much different market 10 years ago. Before Windows 95, people who bought operating systems knew what they were getting into," says Stephen Baker, a computer-industry analyst for market-research firm NPD Group. "That was the beginning of the consumer PC market."

While Vista will have a smaller impact on the PC market than Windows 95 did, Baker still sees an important milepost with the launch. Retailers plan to use the unveiling to an unprecedented degree to sell service offerings and hardware add-ons to consumers, he said.

CompUSA is charging cut-rate installations and a money-back guarantee to customers who bring in their machines before the launch. (They can pick up their desktop or notebook as early as 12:01 a.m. on launch day.) The chain will also pitch unlimited tech support for one month for $29.99.

"There's more consumer demand for installation now. And there are choices between premium and basic," the two levels of Vista aimed at consumers, said Roman Ross, the Dallas-based chain's chief executive. "We're going to help consumers get through that. From curiosity to purchasing is a big leap of faith."

Best Buy also expects plenty of service business from Vista. David Morrish, senior vice president for merchandising, said the chain analyzed the types of machines sold over the last few years and believes that many will need upgrades such as more memory to run Vista.

Many of those users are likely to be satisfied to stay with their old operating system. Home Premium costs $159 for an upgrade, $239 otherwise.

Likely a better source of installation and other service work will come from customers who just purchased a Vista-ready PC or notebook in December. Morrish said Best Buy gave them certificates to get the new Vista from the manufacturer and expects many will bring in their machines and the discs for installation.

Retailers are spending time and money to train their sales staffs in how to use and demonstrate Vista.

Morrish said Best Buy has trained 60,000 staffers to show off how Vista works with video, digital imaging and music downloading and editing.

The chains are planning to offer sales on Vista-equipped PCs and notebooks to bring customers into the store. CompUSA declined to detail its offerings but said it plans a media blitz online, on radio and in next weekend's newspapers.

RadioShack Corp. will be selling accessories and upgrades such as memory, cables, express video cards and widescreen monitors, all at sale prices, said Wendy Dominguez, a spokeswoman for the Fort Worth-based retailer.

Besides each other, the retailers will also be competing against Microsoft itself, which will for the first time sell a new operating system online, although relatively few computer users are expected to download Vista from the Internet.

None of the retailers would offer an estimate of how many Vista-equipped computers or PC upgrades they expect to sell.

Executives said the sales curve won't be like the feeding frenzy for new game consoles.

"It's not Windows 95, but it's better than the last couple (operating system) releases because it's significantly new and different," said Best Buy's Morrish. He said Microsoft's sales to business users, which began Nov. 30, will eventually drive purchases by consumers, who will want the same operating system at home and the office.

Like the cast of a Broadway play, retailers are closely watching reviews of Vista as the launch date nears.

The Wall Street Journal said last week that Vista was the prettiest Windows system ever, with better navigation than its predecessors. But the reviewer said it wasn't a breakthrough in ease of use, and parts of the system ran slowly even on new computers. The large headline called Vista "Worthy, Largely Unexciting."

Ross, the CompUSA CEO, winced ever so slightly when reminded of the review. But he's confident his sales representatives can close the deal.

"When reviews are poor, that's a concern," Ross said. "But when consumers let us show them what they can do with this, they'll be excited about it. And Microsoft will spend a lot of their time promoting it."


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