Editorial: Apple is tops at retail
By Peter Cohen,
A recent survey
published by PC World ranked Apple as the best brick-and-mortar retail computer buying experience. They compared shopping at the Apple Store to other major retailers where you can buy PCs — Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA and Staples — and Apple trounced the competition, nabbing an “Excellent” rating while everyone else ranked “Poor.” It’s especially noteworthy coming from a PC-centric publication (PC World’s a member of our extended IDG family).
When you consider the one-size-fits-all mentality, lack of adequate sales training and warehouse-style settings at many major electronics retailers, perhaps Apple’s success in this report isn’t exactly a major surprise, but it’s good news nonetheless as Apple continues to expand its retail presence at home and abroad. There’s no question that the Apple retail stores have had a very positive effect both on Apple’s bottom line and on its public perception. Apple’s Q4 numbers won’t be released until next week, but if its past performance is anything to go on, Apple’s retail segment was responsible for about US$270 million of the more than $2 billion Apple took in during its third financial quarter, or more than 10 percent of its quarterly revenue.
Many of the people passing through Apple’s stores are Windows users and first time PC buyers — the positive effect that retail experience has on them cannot be discounted, even if they’re just coming in the door to buy an iPod. So where does Apple go from here?
Apple says that the majority of the U.S. population is now within a fairly short drive of an Apple Store. Convenience for consumers is everything, but Apple Stores are still few and far between in many areas. I’m more than an hour’s drive from my closest Apple store, and it’s located in a busy urban setting I’d rather not deal with. I know I’m not alone — I’ve talked with plenty of Mac enthusiasts in this area who may have visited the closest Apple store once, but haven’t returned because of the hassle of actually getting there.
It makes sense that Apple must continue to expand the scope and penetration of its retail presence, but doing so has its own risks as well. Just ask PC maker Gateway, which beat a hasty retreat after opening up its own retail chain. Gateway overextended itself by opening locations that were just unprofitable, plain and simple. Apple seems anxious not to make the same mistake. Apple is taking a more cautious approach that demands bottom-line results.
Smaller venues may be one solution — opening up “micro-stores” that only carry a select supply of Apple products, software and peripherals, manned by fewer salespeople, without as much of the operating overhead as Apple’s bigger locations. Apple’s already modulated the size of some of its retail spots depending on what real estate is available and what the local market can bear.
Ultimately, however, I don’t expect that we’ll see an Apple store or kiosk in every mall in the country. To that end, chains like Apple’s competitors in PC World’s survey still have a better reach, and one that they’re likely to maintain. That’s fine for iPods, but what about Macs? Apple’s past experience working with the big chains to get Macs into consumers’ hands has been rather disastrous.
Ultimately, peripheral regions like mine seem primarily to be the domain of the independent reseller and the mail order catalog and online reseller. Neither channel really sports the marketing muscle or the brand identity to draw customers with any particular fervor like the new opening of an Apple Store might, but they’re still excellent resources to turn to. And while catalogers may have some brick and mortar stores beat on pricing, rebates or bundle deals, independent resellers remain, by and large, a great place to find personalized, face-to-face service that you’d be hard pressed to find somewhere else.
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