Apple Store Openings: A Community Event

(A special dispatch from Macworld Contributing Editor Dan Frakes.)

As someone who works (and plays) in the Mac industry, I've been to many of Apple's retail locations around the U.S., but I've never been there with those loyal Mac enthusiasts who brave the nighttime elements to be "the first" on opening day. (I never camped out for concert tickets in high school, either, so this shouldn't reflect poorly on my dedication to the platform.) Since the San Francisco Apple store is in my home city, I figured this was my chance... until I fell asleep Friday evening and woke up at 6 a.m. Saturday, still at home.

I'd missed my shot at Apple Store glory, but that didn't mean I had to miss everything. I rushed out the door, hoping to be able to talk to some of the Mac lovers in line and maybe be there early enough to get a " Lucky Bag."

I made it to the store at around 6:30 a.m., which put me around 200th in line -- a sure shot for a Lucky Bag. However, my journalistic sensibilities kicked in as I realized that if I stood in line I wouldn't be able to talk to the dedicated Apple Store shoppers at the front of the line. I abandoned my Lucky Bag quest, and my spot at the end of the line, and walked the block and a half to the other end.

Person #1 was a Bay Area local, Ulan McKnight, who had arrived Thursday evening and endured the cold and drizzle to earn the honor of "first customer" (see our event pictures for his grand entrance). Ulan and his young apprentice, Lovel, weren't alone long, though, as other Mac users began to join them early Friday morning. According to Gary Allen, maintainer of the ifo Apple Store website and another of the first few people in line, around 120 people had gathered by midnight Friday night, making this the biggest "overnight" crowd for any Apple Store opening. (The Tokyo store had much bigger crowds by the time the store opened, but fewer people were there the night before.)

By early Saturday morning, the crowd had begun to grow at a much quicker rate. The "unofficial" counts as the morning progressed were:

  • Midnight: ~120
  • 4:30 a.m.: ~150
  • 6:30 a.m.: ~200
  • 7 a.m.: ~300
  • 8 a.m.: ~500
  • 9 a.m.: ~800?
  • Apple's official count just prior to the 10am opening: 1200

As I was talking to McKnight and other people near the front of the line, the question everyone seemed to ask them -- besides "What are you waiting in line for?" -- was "Why do people camp out for an Apple Store opening?" If you'd been reading the Mac press the latter part of last week, you might have suggested it was to get one of the mysterious Lucky Bags. But despite all the hype about the Bags, a good number of the people toward the front of the line weren't even planning on buying one; in fact, some hadn't even heard about the Lucky Bags until they got in line. (To be fair, the first "Lucky Bag" auction on ebay started a few minutes after noon on Saturday, so some people clearly knew about them and knew exactly what they were going to do with them. It didn't help that Apple was allowing people to buy more than one Bag once they got inside.)

So why stand in line for the opening of a store? As one of those toward the beginning of the line put it, "If you have to ask..." In other words, everyone has their "thing"; for these Mac users, being the first to scuff the thrice-polished floors of the new Apple Store is it.

But it's not just the store; according to many of those in line, it's also the "community" that Apple Store openings engender. Mac users have always been a smaller, more closely knit group than their Windows counterparts, and, like user groups, Apple Store openings are one of the events where people can spend time with fellow Mac users just as passionate about the platform. As McKnight put it (and I'm paraphrasing here, as in my mad rush out the door, I left my notebook at home and was reduced to taking notes on my business cards), "It's not really the store; it's all the people sitting here [in line] -- just hanging out."

Those in line provided me with plenty of examples of this "community" in action. Steve Cocks, who drove to San Francisco from Orange County, CA for the opening and was also one of the first few people in line, ordered a bunch of pizzas Friday night and passed them down the line. (I was curious about that phone call: "Yes, that's right,I'd like them delivered to the sidewalk outside the Apple Store on Stockton and Ellis. Yes, I know it's closed. Yes, the sidewalk.") Early Saturday morning, someone further back in line reciprocated, buying a few dozen donuts for those in front. Coffee and food runs were common.

Line-standers even shared network connections. Although Apple left their AirPort Base Stations on at night so those in line could get Internet access, at a certain point the line outstretched the range of the wireless connection. To help those farther back in the line, someone who was still in range enabled Internet Sharing on their PowerBook and shared their signal via Ethernet. During the night, several people even pulled their cars up to the curb so people could charge their laptops.

In contrast to those in line was the endless trail of people inquiring what the line was for. According to the people I talked to, many passersby "just didn't get it," staring in disbelief when told that people were waiting for a store to open. Worse were those who made disparaging remarks. "After awhile you start making things up," said McKnight, accompanied by the son of a friend. "And when you have a 13-year-old with you, he starts telling people we're here because everything's 50% off to the first 500 people." Cocks added, "So there are probably a lot of people way back in line who think they're getting a G5 for a big discount -- and the further back you get, the bigger the rumored discount."

Others commented that even though Macs have become more "acceptable" to the mainstream over the past couple years, there's still a negative reaction among many non-Mac users when they see people standing in line for an Apple Store to open. Yet one line-stander pointed to the Virgin MegaStore across the street, noting that if there were concert tickets going on sale, or a live performance, no one would think twice about 500 people standing in line.

Whether you "get it" or not, after talking with a good number of people in the line, one thing was clear: Apple's fan base is like few others'. As Henning von Vogelsang, visiting San Francisco from Europe, put it, "Few brands create this sort of passion. Apple didn't organize this -- users come out and stand in line entirely on their own." Although I'm sure the Lucky Bags didn't hurt.

[Interesting side note: many of those at the front of the line said that the most memorable thing about their experience in line was watching Apple employees and contractors clean, polish, and buff everything in sight, over and over -- sometimes three or four times each day. (In fact, three of the metal panels that comprise the store's facade were over -buffed, resulting in some heated conversations among contractor staff.)]

The Lucky Bags

I actually ended up "getting lucky" -- I was able to procure a Lucky Bag ($249, no tax, Apple Part Number D2866Z/A, if you're curious), supplies of which were exhausted by 10:50am. After Jason's story on Thursday, you're probably wondering exactly what was in it.

If you got the "standard" version, you got:

  • AirPort Extreme Base Station (modem and antenna port version)
  • Apple Bluetooth Keyboard
  • Apple Bluetooth Mouse
  • D-Link USB Bluetooth adapter
  • .Mac membership
  • iLife
  • Keynote
  • 10% discount Apple Gift Card, good for 10% off any single purchase

Total value, according to Apple Store prices: $683 plus tax plus the value of the 10% discount card.

Oh, and if you were one of the lucky few, your bag also contained either an iPod or an iPod mini! --Dan Frakes

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