Whither the Indie Mac Resellers?

Between last weekend's opening of the San Francisco Apple retail store and a tidbit noting an "undercurrent of dissatisfaction" from independent retailers, MacCentral readers have had quite a bit to say about independent Apple retailers lately, and not all of it is good.

Apple has opened up dozens of retail store locations around the country and continues to do so. It's also gradually opening them overseas, with the first in Tokyo's Ginza district, another coming to Japan, and if rumors bear fruit, soon in the UK as well.

For the most part, Apple has moved into locations that these mom and pop shops can't get into: Upscale shopping malls, for example, boutique areas and high-visibility urban domains. Apple has now opened up four domestic stores that qualify as "flagship" locations -- New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco -- big, splashy architectural wonders that do as much to raise the visibility of Apple's logo in tony retail locations as they do to actually push Apple products out the door.

Independent dealers feel threatened by this, because they see Apple favoring its own retail stores when it comes to promotions, early seeding of in-demand stock and other benefits that give Apple an upper hand in selling to end users. I'm not so sure this is a bad thing.

I have a great independent Mac dealership near me that I'm very fond of. These folks have a clean, well-lit store that presents the Mac very professionally. They do a lot of hand-holding and personal support you'd be hard-pressed to find at any chain, even Apple stores. They know your name when you walk in the door. But these folks seem to be the exception, not the rule.

Apple stepped into the retail market because they have the money to get into high-visibility locations and the marketing acumen to create a retail experience that is miles apart from the experience that some folks have had with independent resellers.

While the people who work at the Apple Stores may not always bat 1.000, it's a much less daunting task for a new Mac user or a new computer user to walk in to a clean, well-lit Apple Store and see how Macs work than it is for that same person to walk into some independent resellers and do the same. It's a recurring theme to find dingy stores manned by surly staff pushing obsolete products. But that doesn't mean that Apple should do away with authorized resellers all together.

Independent resellers and even chains like CompUSA serve an important role in the Mac food chain. They all reach out to potential Mac buyers with a retail presence that wouldn't be profitable or effective for Apple to manage on its own. My guys, for example, hit a geographical location that I don't suspect Apple has the reach to get to for quite a while, if ever.

And because they deal with the local customers, locally owned shops often have a good handle on their demographic: Sometimes these independent resellers can work together with their customers to develop custom solutions that Apple probably couldn't do on its own.

As far as the availability of hard-to-get merchandise, I can understand the indie dealers' frustration: It's hard to know that the Apple Store a few miles away from you is getting equipment that you could move. I'm not sure there's any effective alternative, though. The Apple retail stores are showcase locations -- they should get product first. But not to the exclusion of anyone else.

When Apple Stores first opened, the idea promoted each time I talked with a store manager at a new opening was that their folks would pass off customers looking for custom solutions or those that needed extensive hand-holding to local retailers. It's great in theory but practice hasn't worked out that way, it seems. At least a few of those customers have slipped through the cracks. In some cases, the Apple Store employees don't know which local resellers specialize in what services.

I'm hoping that cooperation with local resellers and relations between resellers and Apple stores is an area that Apple is working on to improve. A rising tide raises all ships, as the saying goes, and it would be a mistake for Apple to sink the fleet.

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