Apple Store — the sleep of the “just”

Matthew JC. Powell
20 June, 2008
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Traffic — particularly pedestrian traffic — in the middle of Sydney was disrupted on Thursday as people lined up around the block into York Street to be among the first to enter the Apple Store. The excitement of those in the line was palpable, as was the disbelief of many passers-by. "Why are you waiting in line," they cried, "it’s just a shop." I heard that phrase a lot: "just a shop". I’m sure the people who queued overnight heard it many more times than I did. But, in truth, is the Apple Store "just a shop"?

I think not. I think it’s not "just" anything.

Around 4pm, an hour before the Store opened, I was talking to the fellow who was then the back of the queue. "Why are you here," I asked. "To be the first to the Apple Store," he replied. "You’re not first, by a long way," i pointed out, and asked "do you hold out hope you’ll get a t-shirt?"

"No," he said. I asked him "if you’re not going to get a t-shirt, what are you going to buy when you get into the Store?"

He thought about it for a moment, then said "replacement headphones for my iPod?"

There were at least three places within spitting distance of where we were standing on York Street where he could make that purchase. And I’m not sure he even really needed them.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I saw the same guy later in the evening with a t-shirt, so he wasn’t as far from the front as I’d counted. It was difficult to keep track of who was in the queue, who was interviewing the people in the queue, and who was busily pointing out that they were queueing up for "just a shop".

But that fellow I spoke to who didn’t think he’d get a t-shirt wasn’t there for the shop, any more than the people at the front of the queue who’d been there all night were sleeping in the street for a t-shirt. (After the media preview on Wednesday a member of the press gave the woman at the front of the queue the t-shirt we’d all been given. She accepted it gratefully, but didn’t leave her spot in the queue — it wasn’t about the shirt.)

I spoke with her and her partner inside the Store after it opened, and they were both grinning broadly, feeling like it had all been worthwhile. "Walking up the glass staircase with no-one in front of you" was cited as part of what made it so. It’s a lot of effort to go to, for something that you can experience every day at 8am — but it wasn’t really that, was it?

When he was CEO of Apple, Gil Amelio pointed out (accurately, I think, at the time) that Apple was "the only lifestyle brand in the technology industry". The only company for who people would pay to wear the logo on a t-shirt> he tested this by introducing a line of clothing, accessories, toys, towels, knick-knacks and whatnot plastered with the Apple logo. These were sold via the Company Store on the campus at Cupertino. All of a sudden, the Apple faithful who would make the pilgrimage to be photographed in front of 1 Infinite Loop also had the opportunity to take a souvenir away with them.

Steve Jobs put the kibosh to the Apple-logo clothes and things, just as he nixed the multi-coloured Apple logo and the Icon Garden — huge statues of various Mac icons that once stood on the lawn out front of corporate headquarters. But I think he did retain that one bit of Amelio wisdom.

People still make the pilgrimage to Apple. Not because they have an appointment there, or because they have an idea Steve just has to hear about. Just because they want to be there. And of course when they get there they can’t exactly wander about — it’s a place of business and a pretty secure one at that.

The Apple Store gives people an opportunity to go to Apple and be there, surrounded by Apple, soaking up the Apple lifestyle. That probably sounds a bit airy-fairy, and it probably is. But if people get a positive feeling from something — anything — who am I to begrudge them?

I’m put in mind of a scene in an episode of the Simpsons ("Homer vs the City of New York," the first episode of season nine) in which Bart finds himself outside the offices of MAD magazine. He goes inside, hoping to be greeted by scenes of satirical wonder, and instead finds a receptioist who tells him it’s a serious place of business and he should go away. Then a door opens to reveal madcap scenes in an editorial meeting.

If you show up at Apple Australia’s offices in the Hilton building, you’ll be met by a receptionist who’ll ask if you have an appointment and if you don’t you’d better clear out. It’s a serious place of business (albeit with very friendly receptionists).

The Apple Store is where you can go to be greeted by people with an enthusiasm for Apple and the Mac that’s easy to get caught up in. You go through the door and you immediately feel "it’s OK to love my Mac — everyone around me does too". It’s hard to explain that to people who aren’t Apple enthusiasts, largely because the technology they use is generally not so entwined with their lifestyle.

Think about this. Apple’s configure-to-order online buying system bears some resemblance to the system pioneered by Dell, and which propelled that company to the top of the PC industry. The secret, according to Michael Dell, is dealing directly with the customers instead of through middle-men. Apple adopted part of that strategy — dealing directly with customers — but retained most of its channel strategy because it recognised that human interaction is also important. Notably, Dell has started introducing kiosks where you can go and talk to an actual person about your needs — chalk that one up as a win for Jobs.

However, imagine if Dell opened a three-storey glass edifice in the middle of Sydney where you could go along and touch and feel all of Dell’s products and a wide range of accessories and be met by people who just LOVE Dell. Do you think there’d be a queue around the block? I don’t.

Because that would be just a shop.

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