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A packed house at Microsoft’s retail store at Seattle’s University Village on Sunday

The ongoing rivalry between Apple and Microsoft is playing out in various environments — from corporate IT departments to decisions made by app developers. But perhaps nowhere is the fight for computer users on display as publicly as the Apple and Microsoft retail stores.

I spent a couple hours Sunday afternoon shuttling between the Apple and Microsoft stores at Seattle’s University Village shopping mall. This is about as close in the physical world that the two tech titans come to duking it out. The Apple and Microsoft stores — eerily similar in design and layout — are located about 75 yards apart. A parking lot is all that separates them.

Apple keeps drawing browsers and buyers to its store

In past visits to these two stores, Apple has always appeared to have the upper hand. Packed with customers and sales people, the University Village Apple store looks as if it were designed to print money, from opening to closing.

And while there was a consistent stream of customers at Apple’s store once again this past Sunday, the nearby Microsoft store had its very own buzz going on.  In fact, I bumped into a friend who had been to both stores on Sunday, and he noted: “I think this is first time I’ve seen more people in the Microsoft store.”

With the launch of the Surface tablet on Friday, shoppers were streaming in and out of the Microsoft store. It was indeed packed, at times hard to maneuver through the crowds. (It’s my estimation that the Microsoft store is slightly smaller than Apple’s store, lending itself to a more crowded feel).

However, here’s one important distinction: People were walking out of the Apple store carrying products — large-screen monitors, new Macbooks and the like. When I inquired with a sales rep at Apple about a new iPhone 5, he told me that they were sold out and that lines were still forming each morning with folks trying to get the latest shipment.

At the Microsoft store, it appeared as if there was more browsing going on than buying. That’s not a surprise given that most people have never even had the opportunity to touch the new Surface. (Follow GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop’s experiences with his new Surface tablet here).

At least Microsoft is getting people in their stores. But, if they want to win the hearts and minds of consumers this holiday season and truly make a comeback, they are going to have to make sure more people are walking out the door with shopping bags in hand. A lot of shopping bags.

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