Tales of Retail

It's 11 p.m., and thank goodness I'm finished. I had wondered how I'd feel walking out of an Apple Store after 15 hours in the bloody place. It's exactly the same way I felt when I finished my first half-marathon: my legs and feet are sore from all the wandering around, I'm feeling the effects of carb depletion, and any feelings of exhilaration and accomplishment have been pushed aside by sheer relief that I'm finally allowed to go back to my car. I say my good-byes to the kind, knowledgeable, and (given that they're stuck working the closing shift on a Saturday night during the height of the Christmas season) highly unfortunate staff of the Apple Store at the North Shore Mall, in Peabody, Massachusetts. I had arrived hoping to abuse the store's Net connection and determine whether the Apple Store concept is in the best interests of Our Glorious Revolution.

Done and done.

The Evening Vibe

A woman strides up to the Genius Bar at the back of the store, just to tell the staff that her Mac is working A-OK. She bought a new Mac about two months ago, and she's been a steady visitor, getting problems taken care of or simply coming in for a little hand-holding. The knowledge that she's a confident and self-assured Mac user with a machine running in top form fills her with such excitement that she just has to come in and share the news.

And that's not an atypical Genius Bar conversation. It's like the Apple Store has taken the place of the rural post office. People come in to do business, but they also come in to connect with their community and catch up on the latest news and gossip. Time and time again, a customer is greeted by name or some other handle -- "Indigo G3 iMac, your sister runs a catering outfit, right?" This is in sharp contrast to when I worked retail (and identified customers chiefly by their uncanny ability to interrupt me at the worst possible moment).

The Late-Afternoon Vibe

The place just keeps selling and selling Macs; iMacs and PowerBooks are being loaded onto handcarts every time I look around. I'm amazed at how many are impulse purchases. One man came in for an iMac to put under the tree, but a couple of quick questions about working with Windows files led to half an hour of increasingly detailed questions -- and lo and behold, the Pentium 4 he was going to buy for his home office was replaced by a second iMac. This sort of thing doesn't happen at OfficeMax.

The Early-Afternoon Vibe

The kid in front of the Cinema Display won't move. He's been planted there for an hour and 12 minutes, by my watch, doing nothing but listening to online music. He's irritating me more and more because that's the machine I was using to catch up on my movie trailers and BMW shorts (www.bmwfilms.com) -- all part of my plan to survive the day by abusing Apple's wide-open broadband pipe. I'm forced to swallow my rage and use one of the iMacs next to it, and I make a mental note to ridicule the kid's absurd trousers later on, in print.

The Midday Vibe

Somebody recognizes me. I have to stress that being recognized isn't important, but I was rather hoping that I had achieved the sort of notoriety where I couldn't spend 15 hours standing in the center of an Apple Store without being recognized at least once. Bill shakes my hand and tells me that he stops in every time he visits the mall. This time he's been pulled in by his daughter, who's in a walking cast. "Sports-related injury?" I ask. "Nope, Mac-related," he explains. "She was doing a back flip on the carpet and whanged into my Power Mac 5400."

The Late-Morning Vibe

The biggest challenge for me is just shutting up . It's still early, but the store is crowded with people asking interesting questions -- about firewalls, digital cameras, printer sharing. I want to jump into every conversation and pummel these people with information until they have no choice but to feign death and hope that the referee intervenes, but the staff has yet to be stumped by anything.

The Early-Morning Vibe

The weird thing is that every last one of the two dozen Macs on display is working. Kids are running loose as though we were in the new "Demolition World" theme park -- yet every machine is in perfect running order (and remains so all day long).

Arrival!

I arrive at the Apple Store, intending to stay until the store closes at 10 p.m. Sure, I've ducked in and out of a handful of Apple Stores. But can I really understand what goes on at one if I don't stay all day?

Besides, I still have my doubts. Instead of creating a bunch of Mac-only stores, shouldn't Apple be increasing the Mac's presence in traditional outlets? Has Apple created just another place to buy a computer and an ink-jet printer?

Then again, the marketplace is hostile territory these days, and Apple needs to start building forts along the frontier. Creating yet another technology store would be a titanic waste of time -- but what if Apple created areas where Mac people (both current and future users) could congregate and build strength from one another? Embassies that increased the prestige and credibility of the Mac OS flag in Windows-controlled nations? Places where anyone could come in and check e-mail for free, places staffed by people who honestly believed that Macs were good things and who, just as importantly, could defend that statement intelligently?

That would indeed be a glorious day for The Revolution.

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Contributing Editor ANDY IHNAKTO (www.andyi.com) also writes about technology for the Chicago Sun-Times . The full minute-by-minute account of his Apple Store adventure is online, at www.macworld.com/2003/04/opinion/ihnatko. He suffered for this column … now it's your turn.

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