updated 2/13/2009 3:34:58 PM ET 2009-02-13T20:34:58

Microsoft Corp. on Thursday announced plans to open its own stores despite the economic downturn that has left many retailers struggling.

The company hired David Porter, a 25-year veteran of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., as its corporate vice president of retail stores. Porter was head of worldwide product distribution at DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. since 2007.

Porter, who is set to start work on Tuesday, is charged with improving the PC-buying experience. The company said his first task will be to set the timing, locations and design of Microsoft-branded retail stores, which will sell computers installed with Microsoft software as well as other company products.

Microsoft has been working to revive the image of its ubiquitous Windows operating system, starting with a $300 million advertising campaign that began last fall. Vista, the most recent version of the software, was widely criticized for being slow, requiring new and pricier hardware, and not working with devices like printers and scanners. Vista has also been the subject of a series of snarky television ads from Apple Inc.

Upbeat new ads
At the same time it launched upbeat new TV ads last fall, some of which struck right back at Apple, Microsoft posted 144 of its own employees in electronics chain stores around the world to talk with shoppers about Windows.

The "Gurus" seemed to be Microsoft's answer to Apple's in-store "Genius Bar." With its newly announced retail store intentions, the Redmond-based software maker is taking yet another page from Apple's play book. Apple credits its stores, concentrated mostly in the U.S., for helping boost its profile and draw new customers.

But Microsoft's timing may be off. The U.S. recession has socked the retail sector, and purveyors of electronics have been hit hard. Circuit City Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November and said in January it would liquidate its 567 U.S. stores, cutting more than 34,000 jobs. Best Buy Inc. laid off thousands of corporate employees in December and reported same-store sales — a key measure of retail health — sank 6.5 percent.

Even Apple, whose iPods, iMacs and iPhones draw brand-conscious customers willing to spend more for design, was hit in the holiday quarter by the recession as average sales per store dropped to $7 million from $8.5 million in 2007.

Microsoft had no comment on the plight of Apple and the big-box stores, but said its own retail stores can help shoppers make smarter decisions about spending money on technology.

The company had set up a concept store at its headquarters with displays of Windows computers, Xbox 360 consoles and games and other items. But the company said it's meant to help stores like Best Buy see new merchandising ideas in action, and is not a prototype for stand-alone retail stores.

(MSNBC.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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