A Stroll Through the Apple Storeby Alan Graham
Several months ago when Steve Jobs used some choice expletives to express the pathetic experience of retail computer shopping, I didn't think Apple would actually do anything about it other than complain. Well, they did. There are two Apple retail stores open right now -- Glendale Galleria in Glendale, CA, and Tysons Corner Center in McLean, VA. I've just returned from a visit to the Tysons store.
First impressions are the most important
From the first moment I crossed over the threshold, I felt welcomed. The staff was not only friendly, but allowed me to test or try anything in the store, unmolested. I didn't feel pressured to purchase anything, I didn't feel like I was being watched, the staff was delightfully diverse and there were plenty of them on hand. One thing I hate is when retailers sacrifice customer service to keep personnel hours in check and you end up having to wait in line just to ask where the bathroom is located. Not here.
No one spoke down to me as if I didn't know what I was talking about (I felt like I was talking with a peer and not a bored, teenage hacker wannabe). The staff even engaged me in conversation with other customers when I broke into an AirPort discussion. But what really sold me on the experience was when I headed to the back, sat down at the bench in front of the 10-foot video screen, opened my iBook, and was automatically logged onto their AirPort network thanks to OS X. I was browsing with my machine in their store. Wait, I was browsing with my iBook in my store. No more Apple-hostile cretins to discourage me when shopping!
From digital cameras to MP3 players to PDAs, everything was on display and everything worked. The MP3 players all had headphones, ready for my listening pleasure. Digital and video cameras were connected to Macs which had applications like iMovie to try. This was my first experience with iMovie (after six years of non-linear editing) and I got to play with it on a new Ti. Very impressive.
Software, software, everywhere
This is the Mecca of Mac when it comes to software. So often you can't find a title or the retail selection is pathetic because few companies carry Mac software. Not at the Apple Store. There are tons of titles lined up for you to purchase and many of them are loaded on Macs in the store.
The Genius Bar is open
Is the P&L the Sole Criterion for Success for Apple Stores?
In January 2001, Steve Jobs remarked, "Buying a car is no longer the worst purchasing experience; buying a computer is now number one." Clearly he had lost his patience with computer department stores that carried Apple equipment. His experience must have mirrored most of ours while shopping for Apple products in these venues: We couldn't find anyone in the store who knew anything about the hardware, the display items were usually in disrepair, and we didn't dare ask to see any software.
Six months later, two Apple retail stores open their doors with more locations on the way. Now technology analysts are publishing their various predictions about the imminent success or failure of Apple's retail adventure. Journalist Peter Cohen has published a nice overview titled, Apple Faces Challenges for New Stores. As you may have guessed, the inevitable comparison to the Gateway failures are mentioned in many of these articles.
On the other hand, Alan Graham argues in his article that the Apple stores mean more to Apple that simple profit/loss reporting per location. Because many potential buyers don't even think about Apple when contemplating technology purchasing decisions, the new retail stores can begin to expand Apple's presence in the buying public's consciousness. Not to mention they can provide people with a high level of service while encouraging them to try the equipment for themselves.
This is an idea whose time has not only come, but is way overdue. The Genius Bar always has a resident Mac expert on staff to help you with any questions about your computer. I sat and watched as people asked questions while pondering their new system (to be) with the evangelist behind the counter. I saw two people come into the store Windows users and leave with a G4 Tower and a new iBook. I watched people wheel their uncooperative iMacs up to the Genius Bar while the current genius plugged it in and took a look at it. No mysterious back-room antics, no long wait, no sneering jerk makes you feel guilty because a crappy machine he sold you stopped working.
Please take my money
So there I was, overtaken by all that was around me, but I couldn't leave without purchasing something. I needed to complete the total Apple Store experience. I went over and picked up the Keyspan USB remote and brought it up to the counter.
I gave the woman behind the counter the product, she rung it up (with a Mac), placed it into a gorgeous translucent blue bag, took my money, and then took an 8.5" x 11" receipt, folded it neatly and placed it into a cool little envelope. There was no annoying "eeeeggghhh eeeeeeggghhh eeeeeggghhh" of a credit card machine, no familiar rattle of a register cranking out a slip of paper as if it were making it from scratch. Just the soft and silent sliding of a watermarked page, fresh out of a hidden laser printer.
One last note: On the way out I noticed Apple didn't have those terrible security gates at the doorway. You know the ones that screech with malice when you walk out with a product for which they forgot to deactivate the theft-deterrent security tag. The Apple Store runs on the honor system, and as I left the store I had the sensation that I was a person and not just another number in the consumer herd. It was a first-class experience from entrance to exit.
Last and lasting impressions
I have read numerous pundits and analysts put down the idea of an Apple Store before they've even experienced one. The best thing about the Apple Store is that it finally helps to quash the myths that have dogged the company in the past 20 years. You can see for yourself the speed, power, and ease of use that is Macintosh.
The myth that a Mac can't do what a PC can do is dashed to pieces and you start to realize that quite possibly, it is the other way around. I think destroying the PC/Mac myth is the most important factor in the success of the Apple Store. Profitable or not, setting the record straight is what will win new users. Analysts shouldn't view the stores solely as a profit/loss balance sheet, but instead see it as a marketing program to change public perception.
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