Apple Store insider guide

Serenity Caldwell
3 October, 2012
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You don’t normally associate the phrases “work of art” and “place of learning” with a simple retail outlet; and most retail stores don’t enjoy lines that stretch down the block. But Apple’s stores aren’t your average shops.

What began in 2001 as an experiment – one that many industry experts derided at the time – has become a retail revolution. Consumers love Apple’s stores for their clean, modern design, their extensive selection and their Geniuses. Other companies envy them and sometimes try to copy them.

Whether you’re an Apple Store regular or a newbie, there are probably things in it you don’t know about. So take a deeper look past those glass doors to find out how you can make the most of the Apple retail experience.


How do you prove to a market dominated by Windows machines that Apple’s hardware and software is superior? You show it off.

The goal of the first Apple Stores was just that: to lure customers in by letting them play with Macs. Apple converts could play with the latest hardware and potential switchers could ask questions, try out programs and surf the web, all without using a credit card.

Today, the stores’ mission remains unchanged. When you walk into one, you are greeted with the full range of Apple hardware: iMacs, MacBook Pros, Mac Pros, iPads, iPhones, iPods and more. Even the signs are Apple-centric.

The signboard for each product on display consists of an iPad running an app that details everything you might want to know about that particular device. There’s even an onscreen button to call a Specialist over if you have questions.

The Specialists are the blue-shirted stalwarts of the Apple Store. They are sometimes accused of being too helpful – upon entering a store, it’s unusual if you aren’t greeted by at least two of them – but they’re not the typical hard-sell types. They don’t earn commission from a sale and their enthusiasm seems genuinely directed at helping customers in need.


The front half of the store (or, in bigger locations, the main floor) is where most playing and buying happens. Enter the rear section (or another floor), however, and you cross from the retail area to a hybrid classroom and technician’s workshop.

Here, the company provides several services to customers. Every one of these services – except for One to One memberships and Joint Venture – is free for anyone, even if you don’t have an Apple device; for certain customer workshops, you can attend without bringing any hardware at all.

Personal setup. If this is your first computer or iOS device, Apple’s Personal Setup service is invaluable, but even Mac and iPhone veterans can take advantage of it.

A Specialist will help you unbox your purchase and turn it on (and, in the case of an iOS device, activate it). If you’ve bought a Mac, Specialists will help you load any software you’ve purchased along with it, introduce you to the Mac App Store and explain how to transfer data (if you need to move information from an old computer).

If it’s an iPad or iPhone, they’ll tailor a primer for you based on your own knowledge. Don’t know the first thing about swipes versus flicks? Count on a Specialist to break it down.

One to One training.Though not as well publicised as some of the other offerings, One to One tutoring may be the most valuable. A set of specially trained employees are on hand to provide you with solo teaching on subjects as simple as the Finder or as complex as a Final Cut Pro project.When you buy a Mac, you’ll be offered the chance to purchase a $129, 12-month One to One membership, which provides you with flexible learning options to get more from your Mac. One to One lets you book 30-minute or one-hour Personal Training sessions in addition to structured 90-minute Group Training sessions and 90-minute Open Training, where you work individually but with a trainer on hand to answer questions.

Training is personalised and runs the gamut of Mac software.

One to One memberships aren’t currently sold with iOS devices, nor are they sold as standalone options; you’ll need to purchase a new Mac to qualify.

When you buy a membership, you’ll be assigned a default store. You then book appointments for what you wish to study; the training revolves around what you want to learn. Those customers who can spare a few hours per week will find the personal interaction with a trainer invaluable.

If you’re working on a group project, such as building a scrapbook for an anniversary or a slideshow for someone’s wedding, a One to One membership will give you access to Group Training, in which you and several other members sit down and work with a trainer over a 90-minute period on a specific task.

Think of it as a modern-day masterclass. Members work with trainers and each other to tackle pieces of their projects.

Even while they’re out of the store, One to One members can keep learning. Apple provides an exclusive website where members can see their store’s current trainers, change the primary stores they attend and make or edit reservations. Additionally, Apple offers a breakdown of every available session members can take, along with basic task checklists, a place for notes and related tips.

As a One to One member, you can book one Personal Training, one Group Training and one Open Training session simultaneously, but you can’t schedule more than one of each kind at a time. That means you can have both a Personal Training and a Group Training session on the books, but you can’t make two appointments for Personal Training at once.

As soon as your appointment ends, you’re once again allowed to book another session of that same type. Store employees also frown upon ‘double sessions’ – using two One to One memberships to book a trainer’s time from 9am to 10.50am, for instance.


Available to both One to One members and casual customers, Apple’s workshops are for those users who don’t necessarily need personalised training, but who want to know more about a specific subject.

Workshops are limited to 12 people and topics vary by store, as the staff select them. (If you and your 11 friends want to petition your local store for a monthly workshop on Logic, for example, it’s certainly possible to do so.)

Like One to One training sessions, workshops run for an hour, although they’re not as personalised; usually they revolve around several features within a program or the operating system, with a short question-and-answer session afterwards.


It’s all well and good to be excited about your new Mac or iOS device when you’re taking it home for the first time or about learning something new. But when it breaks, you don’t have to throw up your hands in despair.

Apple first created the Genius Bar as a place for Mac users to ask questions about their computers; if you stumped the Geniuses on duty, they could even reportedly call Cupertino for an answer, using a red emergency phone. As time progressed, the Genius Bar became the home for many things: iOS device resets, stories about water damage, Mac repair central and, yes – still a place to get reliable Mac hardware information.

Making an appointment.

You can’t just walk up to the Genius Bar anymore and you haven’t been able to for a while. As is the case for the other non- sales services Apple provides, you need to make an appointment, which you can book through the Apple Store, through Apple’s website or on the Apple Store iOS app.

Apple divides the troubleshooting of its products into four categories: Mac, iPod, iPhone and iPad. (If you’re having trouble with software or an accessory, choose the hardware it runs on.)

Each product has a different queue, so you may see an iPad appointment available at 3.15pm, whereas no Mac appointments will be free until 5pm.

Do not schedule an appointment for the wrong category. Some Geniuses are only certified for iOS devices and can’t help you with a Mac hardware or software problem; if you waste their time, they’re likely to send you away and get you to rebook for another day.

Once you’ve selected your category and appointment time, you’ll be asked to either sign in with your Apple ID or fill in a form. Whenever possible, sign in with your Apple ID; doing so ties your case records to it, so if you’re visiting a different store with a recurring problem, they’ll easily be able to see what’s wrong.

Before you confirm your appointment, you’ll see a place to put additional information. This is shown directly to the Geniuses on deck when you check in and can often help them diagnose your problem in advance. As such, we recommend that you fill this out with your device’s basic symptoms.

If you know the problem and just need a part – if, for example, you have a broken CD drive – noting it in this field is a good way to speed things up.

Book early and often.

You need to schedule One to One training sessions, Personal Projects, workshops and Genius Bar appointments in advance. You can do so on Apple’s retail website after selecting your store or through the Apple Store iOS app. One to One members can also do so on their personal portal.

If you plan to stop by the Apple Store for any of these services, it’s advisable to make your appointments at least a day in advance for Genius Bar appointments, three to five days in advance for workshops and one to two weeks ahead for One to One sessions. There are only so many knowledgeable people who work at the stores and their time fills up quickly.

If you’re looking to make an appointment on short notice, we’ve found that sessions and Genius Bar appointments are usually emptiest midweek, around mid-afternoon – most people are at work and the stores also tend to have the fewest customers then. On the flip side, the worst time to try to schedule an appointment is in the evenings, especially on the weekends – if you need to see someone at those times, be sure to book well in advance.

The check-in.

Because of the onslaught of appointments – four an hour per Genius – the bar runs on a tight schedule, micromanaged to the minute by Apple’s software. Apple recommends that you check in for your Genius Bar appointment at least 10 to 15 minutes in advance.

It’s best to do what Apple says. If you aren’t checked in within five minutes of your designated time, the computer sends a warning to the Genius assigned to your case; if you’re late, the computer cancels the appointment.

You can check in by speaking to any Specialist on the floor or by using the Apple Store app. The app is really the best way – it sends you a banner alert when the Genius on deck is ready, so you can browse through the store without missing your appointment.

The appointment.

Genius Bar appointments last 15 to 20 minutes per customer; often Geniuses are working with several customers at once. Rest assured that they aren’t ignoring you or trivialising your case. Think of the Genius Bar as something like a trauma ward – employees want to help as many people as possible, so they have to dart from customer to customer.

Most problems can be resolved during the initial appointment; if it’s parts-related and the store has the part in stock, all but the most difficult repairs can be executed within an hour while you wait. (The trickiest repairs usually take no longer than a day, though a part can take up to a week to arrive, depending on what it is.)

The bottom line is that Apple Stores offer a wide array of services, but the best way to get the most from them is to play by the Apple Store rules. Do that and you’re likely to walk away a happy customer.


You can locate stores, see a workshop and event schedule, check out in-store items and book Genius Bar appointments, workshops and One to One training sessions within the Apple Store app. Better still, it has geolocation capabilities, so if you’re in the store for an appointment, the device alerts you when your Genius or instructor is ready to get started. A recent update introduced the great EasyPay feature, which allows you to scan and pay for accessories just using your iPhone and Apple ID.


Tales from the Genius Bar

Stephen Hackett is a former Apple Store Genius. This is an excerpt from his ebook, Bartending: Memoirs of an Apple Genius
(US$2.99; Hackett Technical Media;

Hard drive failures are inevitable. Hard drives have spinning platters and fast-moving arms. Like all things with small moving parts, they are very fragile, almost designed to fail. As you can imagine, Geniuses have to give people bad news about their drives all the time.Her name was Susan. She was a middle-aged woman, who had a 15in PowerBook with a hard drive that sounded like a tin full of rocks going through a clothes dryer.

Even though I could guess the problem as soon as I heard the grinding noise, I went through the motions of troubleshooting it. I booted her PowerBook from an external drive, opened Disk Utility and … nothing. The drive wouldn’t repair and when I attempted to mount it, the machine locked up. As I began to break the news to her, she started to cry and before long she was sobbing. A few tears weren’t unusual at the Bar, but this was different. I could tell she’d lost more than just an essay or some work project.

After she calmed down, Susan explained that her children had been killed in a car accident a few years prior. She had all the photos of her small children on the hard drive. Pictures from her pregnancies were gone. Photos of birthday parties and opening presents on Christmas were gone. Watching her cry, I realised that she was reliving the pain of losing her children.

Like most Mac users at that time, she had no backup of her files. Even before the days of Time Machine, as a Genius, the natural tendency was to have a ‘tough luck’ world view when it came to data loss. It was easy to look at customers who lost data and not feel any pity, figuring that they had got themselves into that position by not having a backup of their data.

I operated with that mindset a lot of the time. I think it’s fair to say most Geniuses do. Obviously, in a case like Susan’s, none of that applied. To feel anything but pity and sadness would have been plain wrong. This woman had already been through so much and it seemed cruel of the universe to have added this, too.

Susan’s appointment was a prime example of just how emotional being a Mac Genius could be at times. On one hand, I knew that she should’ve backed up the pictures if they were the only copies she had, but on the other, I wanted Apple to cover the cost of the repair and data recovery, just to make her life a little easier. Really, I just wanted to let this woman cry on my shoulder.

Sadly, at that point, my hands were tied. When a hard drive is in such bad shape, the only hope for retrieving the data is to send the drive to a hardware data recovery company. The process has a mixed rate of success and is very expensive, but it was Susan’s only hope. She didn’t even blink when I told her how much it was going to cost her.

Against all odds, Susan’s story ended well. The company was able to recover her photos and she came back six weeks later for us to help her set up a backup solution for the future.

She was incredibly lucky that her data was recoverable, but I knew it was wrong to frame things in that light. Instead, I celebrated with her at her follow-up appointment. I was genuinely happy that she had the photos of her children back. We were able to connect on a personal level, despite the fact that the Genius Bar was, ultimately, a business. Her story could’ve been much worse – I’m just thankful it wasn’t.


One Comment

One person was compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. udi says:

    gotta love it when people believe their own marketing hype. the apple stores, like the company itself, are successful but they are just a chain of stylish shops. what makes them successful probably has more to do with fashion trends than anything else.

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