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The new Apple Store in downtown San Francisco is a beauty. Nestled right between Market Street and shopping-mad Union Square (and right across the street from the Virgin Megastore, where songs cost a wee bit more than 99 cents each), Apple's new retail outlet occupies a two-story structure with a glass front, a huge glass skylight, and a large glass staircase.

The Apple Store that's within a ten-minute drive of my house isn't beautiful at all. It's in a small shopping-mall space that Apple has not spent millions of dollars redesigning. I'm pretty sure it's where the old Game Keeper store used to be.

The two stores have very little in common. And yet they both sit at the heart of a retail push that promises to alter the shape of the Mac landscape.

Tales of Retail

According to Apple senior vice president of retail Ron Johnson, Apple gets one-seventh of its revenue from its 78 (as of this writing) Apple Stores. Roughly half of the Macs sold at Apple Stores go to first-time Mac buyers -- hence Apple's contention that its stores are a great long-term strategy for attracting Windows users.

And that makes sense. The presence of Apple Stores throughout the malls of America (including one at the Mall of America) keeps Apple right in the face of people who might otherwise write off the Mac as an afterthought in a Windows-centric world. And once you're inside the store, seeing all the related software and peripherals dispels the myth about there not being any Mac products. Buying a Mac for the first time becomes a lot less scary, especially when Apple Store employees offer to configure your new computer and peripherals for you -- for free -- before you leave the store.

And that's one of the more interesting aspects of Apple's strategy: to make its stores different because of the service, not the products. Apple Stores come staffed with Geniuses, people whose job it is to answer questions and solve problems, not to sell products.

Like a lot of people, I was initially skeptical about the Apple Store concept. But I've seen just how crowded those stores can get. And as all Mac users know, the more time you spend with Apple's products, the more you realize how much better those products are than the stuff that's being used by the other 95 percent of computer users. Best of all, whether it's the hard-core Mac users shopping for a new printer or those clever Mac Geniuses stashed behind the Genius Bar, the Apple Store reinforces the notion that using the Mac (or even just the iPod) makes you part of a community. How could that not be good for Apple, for the Mac, and for Mac users?

The Search for Soda

In retail matters of another kind, it's not often that the worlds of Macs and colored sugar water (as Steve Jobs so famously called it) collide, but a few weeks ago, I found myself driving through a Northern California deluge, from one convenience store to the next, in search of Pepsi. It's not that I have a particular jones for that brand of cola -- I'm a Diet Mountain Dew man, myself -- but I needed to find enough iTunes cap–sporting soft-drink bottles for Macworld's version of the Pepsi Challenge.

The quest took Senior News Editor Philip Michaels and me to five stores. The final tally: 30 bottles of colored sugar water. Or to be more accurate, 29 bottles of colored aspartame water, since all but one of our purchases were Diet Pepsi, not the regular kind. We also found about a zillion caps for Pepsi's previous promotion. Turns out the soda bottler is not particularly efficient at keeping its inventory fresh. Too bad Pepsi can't follow Apple's iTunes lead and offer digital downloads of soda.

About This Macworld

What songs did Macworld editors and designers download with their soda-gotten gains? Glad you asked:

Jason Snell, editor in chief: "Everybody Loves a Happy Ending," by Tears for Fears

Terri Stone, senior how-to editor: "Political Science," by Randy Newman, and "El Cerrito," by Thinking Fellers Union Local 282

Philip Michaels, senior news editor: "I'm a Boy," by The Who; "Folsom Prison Blues (Live)," by Johnny Cash; and "Get Smart/Casino Royale," by Pourcel Agents

James Galbraith, Macworld Lab test manager: "Pepsi Party," by Mighty Vumba

Kelly Lunsford, senior associate editor: "Company," by Ani DiFranco, and "Hey Ya! (Explicit Version)," by OutKast

Jonathan Seff, senior associate editor: "Dream Police," by Cheap Trick, and "Smoke on the Water," by Señor Coconut and His Orchestra

Jennifer Steele, art director: "A Promise," by Echo & The Bunnymen

Amy Helin, senior designer: "The Best of Times," by Styx

Sue Voelkel, copy editor: "The Million You Never Made," by Ani DiFranco

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