The Practical Mac

Undercover at the Apple Store

- 2001.12.04

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, actually it was more of a cool and sunny afternoon. I was in Dallas for a few days and had some spare time. Since I don't get back to my hometown all that often, I decided to take advantage of it and do some shopping. And by shopping, I mean, "Computer shopping!" I went to the Apple Web site and did a search for Apple retailers in the area. In the middle of page two was a totally unexpected discovery: An Apple retail store! My destination was charted.

Unless you count the company store in Cupertino, I had never been in an Apple store. I had not realized that Apple had opened a store in Dallas, so this discovery was a very pleasant surprise. I hopped in the car with map in hand (the store was in a new area that I was not familiar with) and set out for North Dallas.

The store is in the Shops at Willow Bend, which is, as it turns out, in Plano, actually north of Dallas. This was a brand-new mall; all of the stores were not yet open. The Apple store was located between Neiman-Marcus and Dillard's. Pretty nice real estate.

I was greeted immediately upon entering the store. I strolled over to the iMac display and was approached by a young salesman. He asked me if I was already a Mac user. In a moment of panic, I froze. I did the only thing I could think of: I told the truth. Yes, I am a Mac user, and I am very excited about the Apple stores.

I almost immediately regretted being forthright with the salesman. Of course, I was there primarily to check out the store and all the cool gadgets, but I was also there to assess whether this might be something that would increase the Apple market share. By presenting myself as a Mac user, the salesman could see that he was preaching to the converted, so instead of seeing what they really had to offer, I wound up in a low-key conversation about the new iMac's and OS X.

I left the store shortly thereafter to regroup. I decided that I would come back later with a plan in mind. It would have to be much later that evening to assure that there would be few, if any, staff left from my visit in the early afternoon. It would be an operation reminiscent of James Bond - or at least Maxwell Smart. I would go back around 7:30 that night and present myself as a Windows drone to see what the staff might say to convince me to leave the Dark Side.

This week we are moving into a new house. and my wife, who usually reads this column, does not have Internet access. So I am able to tell you the following story. However, you must promise not to spill the beans to my wife!

Since I now had several hours to kill, I passed the time with two of my favorite activities: eating Mexican food and more computer shopping. I paid a visit to Micro Center, another retailer very high on my list of favorites. I had been looking for a Christmas present for my wife for a while. As soon as I discovered that Micro Center had a previous model Titanium PowerBook G4 (the 400 MHz model) and were selling for far less than original cost, I knew I had found the perfect present! The PowerBook had been bought and then returned under their 7-day "no questions asked" return policy. All the packaging was there, and it had not been registered with Apple, so I had essentially just bought a brand-new PowerBook for not much more than half of what they were selling for 10 feet away. It even included the OS X 10.1 upgrade. I took it back to the hotel to try it out (after all, I had to be sure everything worked!) and right now, quite frankly, I can't stand the thought of parting with it. What a computer. And that screen is huge! But I digress.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, after stuffing myself with chips, salsa, and enchiladas at the local El Chico, it was time to return to the Apple store. Upon entering (and much to my relief), I did not see any familiar faces from earlier in the afternoon. The store was now much more crowded. Whereas there had been only five or six people there in the afternoon, there were now well over a dozen, plus youngsters positioned at all four iMac seats in the children's area. I was greeted immediately upon entering the store. A staff member approached me and struck up a conversation. No, don't know much about this Apple stuff. Tell me about it. Why should I switch? None of my programs will run on it, will they?

What transpired next can only be described as truly remarkable. This young man displayed an amazing knowledge of Apple products and computers in general. The new OS doesn't crash. Apple controls the entire design and manufacturing process for both hardware and OS. This allows them to achieve the highest possible degree of stability and problem-free computing. Apple computers connect seamlessly to the widest variety of multimedia peripherals, and they do it right out of the box. No drivers to install. You just plug it in, and the computer recognizes it. Tell me about the programs you use regularly. No problem, Mac versions are available for all of them. If you happen to run into one you need that does not have a Mac version, here is a program [Virtual PC] that will allow you to run it on your Mac. The Mac is faster than an Intel processor running at twice the clock speed of the Mac.

I found this experience refreshing. Most encounters with computer sales people go something like this:

Salesperson: "Like, can I help you, Dude?"
Customer: "I am interested in buying a computer."
Salesperson: "Yeah, they're way cool."
Customer: "What can you tell me about this one?"
Salesperson: "It's uh, like, well, really fast. It's got a hard drive and
lots of other cool stuff. And it's awesome at Quake!"
Customer: "What kind of monitor comes with it?"
Salesperson: "A black one."
Customer: "Well, okay. Thank you very much."
Salesperson: "No problem."

This person could have easily embellished the truth or purposefully misled me. Remember, he thought I was a Wintel idiot. But instead, he took the high road. He let the truth speak for itself. I came away more than a little impressed.

The store itself was very impressive as well. It was well-stocked with all Apple products and had a very large selection of software. I was actually surprised to learn how many different Mac software products are out there. This certainly ain't CompUSA. I was not able to stump the guys at the Genius Bar. I had pre-formulated a question for which the obvious solution was hooking two notebooks together in FireWire disk mode, and they latched onto the answer immediately. The sole disappointment was the selection of third-party peripherals. I would like to have seen more items such as digital cameras, external hard drives, CD and DVD players and recorders, tape backup products, digital video cameras, etc.

Encompassing both of my visits, I was only in the store for about an hour. During this time, I saw three pairs of PowerMac G4s and flat-panel monitors of various sizes, an iMac, and several smaller items go out the door. In a word, sales seemed brisk. This store is located in what could arguably be called the most upscale section of the Dallas area.

An Apple store which will be opening in Atlanta next year will be similarly located in the most trendy mall in town. Not only should these stores attract new users to the Mac platform, they also seem situated to catch the eye of a fair number of customers who can afford $1,000+ "impulse" purchase. Apple seems to be pursuing a strategy based on the assumption that if they can just get a Mac in the hands of these people, the Mac will sell itself. With all new Macs now preloaded with OS X 10.1, I believe this is right on target. It is also not a bad business strategy and, from what I observed, it seems to be working.

Here's to a world filled with many more Macs! LEM

Epilogue: As I was carrying the box for my Titanium PowerBook G4 through the Atlanta airport upon arriving home, I was approached by a Delta Airlines pilot. He asked me how I liked the PowerBook, and I replied that it was fantastic. He explained how he had always been a Mac user and then converted to "the dark side" in the early 90s. He went on to say that with the OS X, the iPod, and all the other great new products from Apple, he had decided to switch back and was just trying to decide which computer to buy. The future is bright indeed.

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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