With Apple opening its own chain of retail stores in malls nationwide, some are left to ponder the future of the independent Macintosh reseller. A soft economy, superstores, online resellers, mail order catalogs and slipping margins have undercut many independent resellers in recent years. Some have gone out of business all together, while others have sought to augment their businesses by selling PCs or diversifying in other ways that have moved them away from the Mac market. Frank Hebert, who just opened his second Mac dealership, presents an interesting case study of a dealer who’s growing despite these pitfalls.
Hebert is the proprietor of Mac/PC Sales & Service, an Apple Specialist with store locations in southeastern Massachusetts. Hebert’s first store opened on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in the early ’90’s, and this past July he opened his second store in the seaside town of Falmouth, a city on the Cape Cod peninsula.
Hebert explained that necessity first drove him into the Mac retail and service market, just as it’s expanding his business now. “I was running a service bureau in Vineyard Haven, and when our Macs would fail I’d call vendors for help. They’d expect me to mail equipment to them to get fixed,” said Hebert.
He began to fix the equipment himself, and before he knew it, other Mac users on the Vineyard got wind of Hebert’s ability to fix Macs. By 1995, Hebert’s business had become a Mac dealer and service center. While the Vineyard Haven store takes in some PCs for repair, he estimates that about 78 percent of the work that it does is still Mac-related.
“We’ve sold about 27,000 Macs since we’ve been in business,” said Hebert of the Vineyard Haven store. “And we took in about 6,700 Macs last year alone for repair or service.”
Selling solutions, not boxes
Cape Cod — especially the Upper Cape area where Hebert’s new store is located — has seen a transition in recent years from a tourist area to a residential community that’s become an extended suburb of Boston, Providence and other surrounding areas. Well-heeled retirees and families looking to escape the hustle and bustle of more built-up areas have also settled in these parts. This growth has fueled opportunities for businesspeople like Hebert. From his perspective, the business boils down to two things: providing customers with solutions to their problems, and being able to offer them superlative customer service.
In some ways, Hebert’s approach to selling Macs mirrors the effort that Apple has made with its retail stores. Hebert admits to not having seen an Apple Store, but when it was described to him, he said, “I’ve been doing the same thing for years for years — this is not a new concept to me.”
“I don’t push boxes and I don’t hard-sell,” said Hebert. “I sell solutions. Macs are by far the best computers on the market. This is a concept you cannot sell to most people. You have to sell people a solution and show them what they can do with their computers.”
Hebert said that when a customer walks in the door looking to buy a new computer, he encourages them to make a list of what they want to do. More often than not, there’s a Mac that fits their needs.
“Most dealers, and especially the superstores and the mail-order catalogs, don’t do this. They’re just pushing boxes. They’re after the volume,” said Hebert.
PCs — a gateway drug to the Mac?
Like many other independent resellers, Hebert has a sideline business selling PC-compatible systems. He sells custom-made Pentium-based desktop computers, and even has a couple of Windows-equipped laptop systems set up on the same table that holds his iMac and PowerBook G4 display units. Unlike other retailers, the PC business hasn’t overwhelmed Hebert’s Mac business — in fact, he sees it as a long-term opportunity.
“We’ll get two or three people a week who swear that a PC-compatible is the only computer on the face of the Earth, and they think the Mac is a toy,” said Hebert. “You can’t make those folks understand everything and you can’t teach them anything if they don’t want to listen, because they think they already know everything. You might as well sell them a PC.”
“On the other hand, I’ve converted eight people this past month. They come in with a broken PC and they leave with a working Mac,” said Hebert with a grin.
Apple Stores bring opportunity, not adversity
Hebert said that he’s not worried too much about the Apple Stores that are coming to the state. The first store in Massachusetts, announced by Steve Jobs this past July at Macworld Expo, will be opened in Peabody. It’s a suburb north of Boston that’s hours away from Hebert’s location. Hebert admits that the novelty of the store might cause him to lose some sales, but he’s not worried.
“I won’t lose customers to those stores,” said Hebert. “They may go there to see a wider variety of Mac hardware than I can show, and I can’t compete with that — Apple’s wallet is a lot larger than mine.”
Hebert’s Falmouth location presents a more modest face to the world than Apple’s upscale stores do — the small storefront has a small but well-stocked array of third-party peripherals, cables, consumables and software. A few utilitarian tables offer customers a look at recent iMac models, a Power Mac G4 equipped with a Cinema Display, some iBooks and a PowerBook G4, along with various printers. The walls are decorated with Apple signage and posters advertising the latest and greatest hardware and software. A gleaming indigo iMac sits behind the counter — it runs the store’s point-of-sale system.
Hebert’s business gives Mac users a place to go for service, and Genius Bar aside, that’s something that you can’t get at an Apple Store. Service and repair of existing equipment is the core of Hebert’s business. And what Hebert’s store may lack in pizzazz, it certainly seems to make up for in traffic.
In the space of an hour on a midweek afternoon, Hebert and his assistants answered a steady stream of questions from customers who walked in off the street to drop off Mac equipment to be serviced or who had questions about getting peripherals or software working. Already the store’s service department has a three-day waiting list. The phone rang constantly, too. It’s an impressive volume of work for a store that only opened a month ago and has done absolutely no advertising of its new location save for word of mouth.
Hebert thinks that some dealers may be threatened by the Apple Stores, but he’s certainly not one of them. “I’m working ninety hours a week right now, and the business just keeps growing.”