A couple of months ago, I interviewed a founder of the luxury appliance store Pirch, whose stores are carefully designed to imbue a sense of well-being. He posed the following question: Given the ease, convenience, customer service, pricing, and rapid delivery available to online shoppers, why would people ever visit a store unless they enjoyed being there?

Why indeed? As rapid delivery becomes a reality everywhere and we lose our longstanding habit of traveling to retail locations, retail shopping had better become really, really pleasant. Or all those big box stores will go the way of Circuit City.

Apple CEO Tim Cook is smart enough to know that. So just as Apple Stores has become such a worldwide phenomenon that even Microsoft has opened stores that are a shameless imitation (lots of white space, products on wooden tables, flat screens, etc.) Apple is shaking everything up all over again.

The new flagship store in San Francisco is a perfect answer to the question of why someone would visit a physical store. Designed to emphasize hanging out over shopping, it offers tables and chairs (where small businesses can have meetings and get advice from Apple staff), indoor trees in the new "Genius Grove" and free WiFi -- everything short of coffee service. Outside is a "forum" courtyard with fountain, to be open 24 hours a day and host events such as concerts

The new store, a model for Apple's new approach chain-wide, was designed in partnership with Fosters + Partners is known for futuristic designs that include the elephant house at the Copenhagen Zoo and a planned lunar habitation for up to four people. With a 6k giant video screen, 40' by 42' sliding glass doors it's also intended to impress. But the emphasis is on welcoming the community more than selling Apple products (most of which are bought online anyhow).

"We are not just evolving our store design, but its purpose and greater role in the community as we educate and entertain visitors and serve our network of local entrepreneurs," Angela Ahrendts, Apple's SVP of retail and online stores said at the event. Ahrendts came to Apple from Burberry, another iconic brand with sleek, well-appointed and welcoming retail stores, as well as a powerful online business.

Analysts told USA Today that the new approach -- as if the stores were "a town center" --might be the future of brand retail. If Microsoft creates another me-too version, we'll know they're right.