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By Bagginz
May 22, 2001

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Editor's note: This past weekend, Apple opened its first two retail stores amid hype, excitement, and long lines. Here is one Fool's report from Glendale, California.

So at about 5 PM, I finally find a parking spot in the garage, and walk into the mall not knowing where the Apple store is. (The Glendale Galleria is one of those multi-level malls on an irregular grid...makes it harder to escape.) I'm walking along, and I see a line up...at first I thought it was for The Mummy Returns, but surprise, it's for the Apple Store!!!!!

And what a line it was. There was a forty-five minute wait to get into the store. I was told it was worse earlier that day, with the line snaking out into the parking lot. While the bored-looking, slightly obese security guards were keeping the cross-traffic in the mall moving, Apple store employees were handing out bottles of Evian water and showing off the new iBook to people waiting in line. I talked to one of them and he tells me that I don't even have to go in to buy it. They'd have sold it to me outside the store if I knew exactly what I wanted. I was tempted, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to buy one then and I wanted to have a look around anyway.

When I finally got in, it was exactly like the one in the pictures from Tysons Corner (no surprise there), but just some notes:

--Much of the store seemed like the hands-on exhibits at science museums. In addition to the computers, people were poking around with digital still and video cameras, and playing with the Palm Pilots, Handsprings, and MP3 players. Kids were sitting on the cushions in front of the low-height table playing with the candy-colored iMacs with displays of educational software behind them.

--While the store was busy, they didn't leave it so dense that you would have to wait behind more than one or two people to take a look at a particular computer. It was only in the middle software section that you might be bumping into people in the aisle. BTW, it was a good software selection, but they needed more books.

--There was a lot of Apple staff. Some were permanent, and some were temps from a local arts college. They were friendly, well informed and you didn't need a geiger counter to find one. Some had piercings, and others had hair with a color you won't find in nature. About 30% of the staff were women and the ages ranged from the early 20s to the early 60s. There was none of the I'm-bored-with-my-job-and-I'm-doing-you-a-favor-by-talking-to-you attitude that you might get at other chains. The dress code they seemed to have was just to wear khaki pants and the black I-work-here t-shirt.

--The "Apple Genius" I talked to was pretty swift about technical details and some software development questions. He moved from the technical support center in Austin to the store in L.A., and answered some questions I had about using my G4 as an Airport base station (will work as one in OS 9, but only the client version works right now in OS X). When I asked him about some good books on Objective C, he typed into his computer and gave me a printout of some titles to get.

--The red hot line at the Genius Counter is like a standard desk telephone but doesn't have any buttons or rotary dial on it; it's sort of the like the direct line to taxi services they used to have in supermarkets. Except for the Apple logo in the middle, it's just like the hotline in the old movies. The hot line was the only thing on the counter -- no books, papers or binders. All of the geniuses (there were three) worked from PowerBooks almost hidden from view. Just about every counter in the whole store looked uncluttered.

--Two of the cabinets in the Genius section are actually bar refrigerators filled with, yep, Steve's Own Brand Vegetarian Bottled Water.

--About the only section that wasn't filled with people was a section for printers at the back of the store.

--Nothing but rock and jazz spilled out the store speakers. That big screen back there was used for the psychedelic screen images from iTunes.

--I did want to buy some extra memory for the computer I have now. They had it, but, like the on-line Apple Store, it was way overpriced. I passed. This is probably NOT the store to go to for peripherals or parts on legacy systems; everything was Firewire or USB. I didn't see any ethernet cable anywhere in the store; it all seemed to run on Airport.

I asked myself why was Apple putting stores first in the eastern suburbs of L.A. and not on the west side. It then stuck me that they'd just be selling to the "creative professional" choir out there. Statistics on all the zip codes from warranty registrations may have told Apple that they don't need a bigger presence in Santa Monica and Westwood as much as they need it in the eastern 'burbs. I may be wrong about this, but I think they're consciously locating the retail stores to enhance their image in regions that are middle class but where their market share is weaker. Smart move.

Unlike, say CompUSA, where they try to maximize sales per square foot, the Apple Store was as much about selling image and lifestyle as it was about selling computers. "Shop Different" wasn't just a cute play on an old Apple slogan. But this is a costly way to sell stuff. The end result may be respectable but not huge per-store profits. However, the increased visibility, slick design and competent, friendly staff might goad the chains and the other Apple retailers in improving their Apple sales and service. After all, if Apple industrial design can set a standard that other PC manufacturers try to copy, then maybe Apple sales techniques can do the same thing with other retailers of Apple products -- in much the same way that Dell web sales taught Apple.

All in all, I thought they pretty much got things right the first day. It was an impressive piece of work. Time will tell, of course, if the store will be successful in increasing market share; most of the people who came the first day were the Apple junkies and cognoscenti who probably have a near-current G3/G4 system. If they were buying, it may have been more out of technolust than need. That said, I'm optimistic that with these stores Apple will be far more successful than anyone else in selling the digital-hub lifestyle to the consumer. They're getting closer to really having the whole widget.

Nope, I didn't get that iBook. As I rang up the cell phone minutes, my better half convinced me that I should first take care of some upcoming expenses, after which time the iBook should be due for the next iteration. Thanks for the t-shirt, Apple. I'll reimburse you for it later.

It was nice to meet you, dreamdoc. (She recognized me from my seeing-eye lobster.) Doctor, why do I have these dreams of Beanie Babies being elected to congress...?

Bagginz