Before There Were Apple Stores…

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

Last week was the tenth anniversary of the opening of the first bricks-and-mortar Apple Store. Numerous websites (including The Mac Observer) have posted columns reminiscing about those early days in Apple’s decade-old grand retail experiment  Pundits have weighed in with their theories as to why the stores have been so incredibly successful, noting that the stores have been a key component to Apple’s financial resurgence. Others have had fun linking to old “claim chowder” predictions of the Store’s inevitable doom.

What I have not seen mentioned much, if at all, is the disastrously awful experience consumers had to tolerate, back in the 1990’s, if they wanted to purchase a Mac at a retail store. More than anything else, this was the driving force behind the creation of the Apple Stores. For me, this was why the Stores were such a welcome breath of fresh air. It was also why I was confident of their eventual success — despite a seeming consensus (outside of Apple) that they would fail.

At the tail end of the twentieth century, if you wanted to buy a Mac, you likely did so online. By the year 2000, I had purchased numerous Macs and other Apple products over the previous decades. Except for my very first Mac (which I bought through a university discount), all the Macs came from online purchases. To this day, I have never bought a Mac at a retail store other than Apple — and likely never will.

During the late 1990’s, Apple had an online Apple Store. If you wanted to shop for Macs elsewhere, there were the online catalog stores, such as MacZone and MacWarehouse. At the time, these stores were at the height of their popularity. By adding value (such as a memory upgrade) as “free” additions to a Mac purchase, catalog stores were able to compete with the online Apple Store. I estimate that online sites (Apple and others) generated over 90% of all Mac sales in the 1990’s.

The reason online sites dominated Mac sales back then was obvious once you ventured into a retail store alternative. Actually, your first problem would be finding a retail store that sold Macs. Apple’s fortunes had fallen so low that most people assumed the company would be bankrupt before the millennium arrived. Even the arrival of the iMac in 1998 did not do much to reverse that belief. As such, many retail chains treated Apple products as if the sales staff could get leprosy by touching them. Sears carried Apple products for awhile, but eventually dropped them. Best Buy played a game of on-again off-again with Apple, carrying iMacs and then not carrying them and then carrying them again.

The most reliable retail place to find Macs were computer chains, notably CompUSA (which, ironically, went out of business several years after the first Apple Store opened). That’s not to say that the computer chains were a good option. If you were an Apple aficionado and made the mistake of wandering into CompUSA in search of a Mac, you’d be well advised to stock up on anti-depressants. I can recall my own dismal experience. I walked into the store and was immediately greeted by a dizzying array of computers and peripherals. Only one problem. Everything was Windows-related. Not one Mac or any other Apple product was visible. When I asked a salesperson about Macs, I was directed to the rear corner of the store — back near where they kept empty cartons and other related trash. Here I found a few Macs (never the complete line of products) sitting around in a disordered and unappealing display. As for software, good luck with that. About the only Mac third-party software CompUSA carried were products that contained Mac and Windows versions in the same box. Want a Mac-specific or even Mac-compatible hardware peripheral? You’d have better luck looking for buried treasure on a desert island.

As for the CompUSA salespeople, they varied from Mac-ignorant to Mac-hostile, often both. On several occasions, when I asked a question, the salesperson pretended to know what he was talking about and confidently gave me the entirely wrong answer. Not surprisingly, these same sleazeballs typically tried to steer me away from Macs altogether, suggesting that Apple was only for losers. “If I went with Windows, I could get a better machine, with more third-party software, for less money.” When I finally left the store in disgust, I wanted to go home to take a shower. I felt that dirty.

No wonder Apple decided to open their own stores. It was the only way that customers might ever hope to have a pleasant retail experience buying a Mac. Apple’s critics complained that opening stores to compete with their own retail “partners” was exactly the wrong thing for Apple to do. The retailers themselves pointed to low sales of Apple products as their rationale for the meager attention they paid to to Apple. To me, it was the old chicken-or-the-egg. How did retailers expect to generate decent sales for a product when they were actively trying to convince their customers not to buy it?

After the Apple Stores started having success, CompUSA eventually made an effort to spruce up their Apple products section. By then, it was too little, too late. Today, at least in part thanks to the Apple Stores, Best Buy stores have a decent Apple section. And, of course, you can buy iPods and iOS devices almost anywhere that sells electronics.

In the end, Steve Jobs and Apple proved the critics wrong. Yet again. Create a clean uncluttered attractive environment, stock it with a complete line of products, have an ample number of friendly and super-knowledgeable staff, and place the stores in popular locations. It was a formula for success. It didn’t hurt that the first iPod arrived only a few months after the first Apple Store opened. A store can only be as good as the products it sells. And Apple was making great products again. Apparently taking advice from Field of Dreams, Apple believed “If we build them, they will come.” How right they were. Congratulations Apple Stores. Happy 10th Anniversary.

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Comments

mhikl

Same experience, exactly, Ted. The sheep groped around Windows machines like, well like sheep and the staff handed out information like hucksters at flee markets. The few customers around the disarray of Apple tailings at the back corners were more knowledgeable and willing to help than the staff. One store posted the days and times the Apple expert would be available. The times and days were not always kept.

My uncle wanted a Windows and wouldn’t even look at the Macs. I warned him to make sure he got a beige one. There was safety in beige. As students we got our Macs through the school at a discount but the lack of peripherals was distressing.

Apple lived up to the challenge of the times and is the better for it. The stores you mentioned had no challenges to meet which would prepare them for the onslaught of cheaper retailers who sank their enterprises once computers quickly became toasters. Apple met the challenge with innovation and that nurtured its DNA forcing the company to think outside the box (differently).

Every time a door shut on Apple, it forged new ones. Obviously, no one was going to do that for it. The sellers of beige who couldn’t think with originality were forced to vacate their buildings and were left wondering where it had all gone so wrong.

Funny that Apple went from selling mostly on line to opening monster stores whilst the others were forced from closed shops to the frugality of the internet or Walmats. Now we have Microsoft hedging its bets with copycat stores of sorts and the rest haggling at kiosks in shopping malls or sad corners in multi-brand stores like Best Buy or down low rent streets like Apple did during its crisis years.

Happy birthday Apple Stores.

marcsten

Great observation! I bought my family’s first computer at ComUsa. I asked about Macs, already leery of Microsoft’s antics. They showed me an actaully fairly nice selection of gleaming lovely laptops (no iMacs!) that cost nearly twice what PCs we looked at cost. No one bothered to tell me how much better they were than the PCs. Only that Apple would be gone soon, and anyways, there’s no software for them. We made an uninformed purchase based on this ‘advice’ and bought a Packard Bell. What a heap! My next computer was an iMac online. Never looked back!

jonricmd

I remember in 1985 wondering why Apple didn’t have their own stores since it was so hard to find peripherals and software locally (Dallas area). I had a feeling then that using regular PC retailers was a bad idea.

kevinlane

I remember when Apple used to put their Performa in Sears stores.  I was one those people who Apple paid to dress up the displays and make sure the computers were up and running.  Both the displays and the computers were ghastly.  It didn’t last.

Shawn King

“What I have not seen mentioned much, if at all, is the disastrously awful experience consumers had to tolerate, back in the 1990?s, if they wanted to purchase a Mac at a retail store.”

We’ve talked about it extensively on YML.

This article, like so many others, unfortunately ignores the excellent job the vast majority of Apple Authorized Resellers did and still do. I’m not talking about the awful experiences Ted alludes to at Best Buy, Sears or Future Shop but the “mom and pop” dedicated Apple Resellers like TekServe or The Mac Store.

Many of us in the Mac community were lucky enough to either buy our first Macs there or worked in the stores. They provided a personal touch and a place for Mac users to hang out and feel part of the community.

Maybe that’s a story Ted can write as a follow up.

mhikl

The store shown is magnificent. Apple Stores are inspirations of design. Models in plexiglass, aluminium and wood should complement shelf or desk, nicely.

pd

I have bought about 40-50 Macs over the years (I buy for my business too) starting with an LC in 1992 or so…..it was from a little retailer, soon gone.  Then there was a Performa 575 bought from Sears (lousy computer, and I remember Sears had big piles of them, just before Christmas.) Until the Apple Store near me opened, all the rest were online, from MacMall/MacConnection/MacZone, or eBay, or Small Dog, or for a while, Mac of All Trades.  CompUSA was indeed awful, but just getting to touch a Mac before buying it elsewhere was pretty cool at the time!  Just shows how bad things were.

The Apple Store was a godsend.  I submit it initially succeeded because of the iPod and its insane popularity at that time; that was what first drew people in.

Ted Landau

This article, like so many others, unfortunately ignores the excellent job the vast majority of Apple Authorized Resellers did and still do.

Sadly, where I lived during this period of history (northern Detroit suburbs), there were no such stores anywhere nearby. So I was unable to benefit from their existence.

Whenever I visited Berkeley (which I did about once a year), I usually stopped in on one great store (the M.A.C. Store on Shattuck). It’s still there! But I believe it is NOT an Apple Authorized Reseller.

I did not mean to slight these “mom-and-pops” ? authorized or not. But I don’t think they represent what most people recall from that period.

Peter

Ah memories…

Actually, the “Store Within A Store” at our local CompUSA (Orange County, CA) was pretty good.  But if you really want to see things done right, see if you can find a MicroCenter.  We have one in nearby Tustin.

They’ve always had a great selection of Mac software.  Apple Stores started out well but, at least in the two Apple Stores nearby, you can’t find much for non-Apple software in them anymore—it’s all been replaced with iPod cases.  But MicroCenter carries both Mac software and Mac/Windows software.

No, I don’t work there.  Just a very satisfied customer.

cb50dc

I did not mean to slight these ?mom-and-pops? ? authorized or not. But I don?t think they represent what most people recall from that period.

I for one didn’t see it as “slighting” them, as they were the exception?or at least I recall them as such. I did buy my first (512e) in one of those places. I’m not even sure if it was part of a franchise.

Sometime probably in the late 90’s, in greater Nashville I found an indie store that featured a full line of all Macs displayed chronologically on a shelf that went all around the inside of the building. Seeing them all together was almost a religious experience. wink

They even had a Lisa. I know, it wasn’t properly a Mac, but it came close enough in the look-and-feel. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen one right in front of me.

cb50dc

Ted, where is the pictured store? Especially given only three persons outside, none that I can see inside, and no autos at all, it looks like an artist’s rendering.

mhikl

cbsofla,
Maybe it’s a night picture. However, all three figures are all thin which beats the odds in todays world so you may be right. Now, adding a mugging or the windows smashed in for a quick grab and run, that might have added enough verisimilitude to argue.

Ted Landau

Ted, where is the pictured store

It’s the New York City Upper West Side Store. I believe it is a photograph.

BibbyG

I do like the Apple stores but they seem to be crammed full of sweaty teenagers checking their facebook, twitter etc.  I know they’re the customer of the future but i’m the customer now - maybe apple should have a youth zone in store instead of the kids zone (which I have never seen used), or hold raffles for youth clubs to win iMacs, iPads etc?

Shawn King

Sometime probably in the late 90?s, in greater Nashville I found an indie store that featured a full line of all Macs displayed chronologically on a shelf that went all around the inside of the building.

That was/is MacAuthority. That store is still there as are the Macs on display. smile

John Baxter

I had the good fortune to have decent retail stores selling Macs during that time period. One is still operating; I’m not sure about the other.

Even now, I have a Best Buy with a good Mac department (and a Mac user often available to do the selling) closer than the nearest Apple store. My most recent Macs came first from that Best Buy and then from a little store in my local area (little stock—they ordered a Mini from what is presumably their access to the online Apple store). I did that to keep the sale local, and I didn’t want to BTO that Mini.

But my good fortune does not argue against the point of the article.

I also had bad places available for buying Macs: Sears, Silo, Good Guys. That was during the model proliferation period. Each chain got its own model to sell (same hardware usually, slight differences in bundled software). That permitted each to advertise “We Won’t Be Undersold” or equivalent. Of course not: no other chain could offer you the same model they sold, at any price.

(The particular Silo space is now a mattress store; the Good Guys space is a pet store.)

Windsor Smith

I’m no expert, but the picture looks like an artist’s 3D rendering to me, too. The lighting showcases the building way too much, everything looks a bit too clean and precise, and the three thin figures resemble ones I used to see in old architectural renderings. At the very least it’s been Photoshopped to remove a lamppost on the left and a traffic light on the corner in front, and I think one of the trees has been moved. See Apple Stores mark 10th anniversary, photo 5/10 for a genuine photo from the same angle.

On a more serious note… Although I love Apple’s brick-and-mortar stores, and I agree that opening them was the right thing for Apple to do, I still miss the independent Mac-only resellers we had in Silicon Valley in the ‘90s, like ComputerWare and Elite. They’re all gone now, at least in part because Apple chose to open its own stores in areas that were already well-served by the independents.

akcarver

I remember when Apple used to put their Performa in Sears stores.? I was one those people who Apple paid to dress up the displays and make sure the computers were up and running.? Both the displays and the computers were ghastly.? It didn?t last.

I was also one of the Apple Authorized Performa Representatives. I started in Northwest Florida, covering all stores from Pensacola to Panama City, (Office Depot, Circuit City, and Sears). When I moved to Seattle, I covered from Everett to Olympia, Silverdale on the Olympic Peninsula. I had forty stores, including the chains mentioned above, as well as Smith’s Home Furnishings, The Good Guys, and Silo, The Future Shop, and Incredible Universe all of which are now gone daddy gone. I also conducted a special event at Incredible Universe in Wilsonville, OR.

I can’t speak to your experience with the AAPR program, but I made damn sure that my territory was in top shape, and did everything I could to make sure that the store employees understood why Macs were better.

archimedes

This article is dead on. I have awful memories of visiting Apple dealers that seemed to be staffed by patronizing idiots (if you could get them to pay attention to you), dreadful superstores like CompUSA (even with its pathetic “store within a store”), Circuit City and Best Buy that seemed utterly clueless about anything Apple (and would generally try to sell you a Windows PC instead), etc.. To add insult to injury, the bad customer service was matched by lousy pricing that couldn’t compete with mail-order houses like MacConnection, etc..

While I lament the passing of the few “good” Apple dealers like ComputerWare and Creative Computers, the Apple Stores really are a vastly superior experience, particularly the Genius Bars and generally approachable salespeople.

I think Apple may have been slightly to blame for how lousy its resellers were, but I still don’t miss them. I’m fine with the modern arrangement of Apple stores, good on-line shops like OWC and superstores like Amazon, a few brick and mortar superstores like Fry’s who compete by offering internet-competitive pricing, a larger selection of non-Apple stuff, and more generous return policies, and Best Buy, which is still mediocre but somehow manages to survive anyway and sell some iPads.

archimedes

Actually…. I am not sure things were ever that great for buying Apple computers or software - from the founding of the company in 1976 until the first Apple store opened in 2001!!

The Byte Shop may have been cool (they sold the Apple I!) but its successors like ComputerLand weren’t nearly as good: high prices, poor customer service, and increasing focus on non-Apple machines (notably the IBM PC and its progeny.)

But can you imagine that there used to be retail software stores such as Egghead Software and Software Etc.? At one point, Electronics Boutique (now EB Games/GameStop) even sold Apple software! (Actually, I think they still carry some PC/Mac games, but console games are their bread and butter.)

Now of course boxed software has been exiled in the Apple store to a tiny, vestigial shelf which will probably vanish forever once Lion ships and the Mac App store becomes mainstream.

archimedes

This article, like so many others, unfortunately ignores the excellent job the vast majority of Apple Authorized Resellers did and still do. I?m not talking about the awful experiences Ted alludes to at Best Buy, Sears or Future Shop but the ?mom and pop? dedicated Apple Resellers like TekServe or The Mac Store.

Shawn, I think you nailed it here - the Apple resellers that still exist have to compete with the Apple Store. As a result, they have to be much better than the wasteland of lousy superstores and low-quality resellers that Ted and many of us suffered through in the pre-Apple Retail era.

skipaq

Believe it or not my first Mac (early 1986 Mac Plus) was purchased in a local (not chain) PC shop. I was looking at Leading Edge stuff I believe. The salesperson asked me what I was going to do with it. I said Desk Top Publishing mostly. He said not to buy anything but the Mac Plus.

I remember thinking that $2400 for a computer was a lot of money. It was. But within 2 hours of use I thought of it as one of the best purchases I’d made. Haven’t changed my mind.

wab95

Ted:

Your post here reminded me why I was so pleased when I walked into my first Apple Store. And while I have visited them on at least three continents (and several countries), the experience is consistent, as are the crowds.

I also recall, prior to an overseas trip, I ventured into a CompUSA years ago for some optical media and software, and found the Mac offerings and displays dismal. At least in Towson the CompUSA was not overtly hostile so much as dismissive. If you wanted anything Mac, you were directed to an obscure and dark corner where everything Mac was relegated. The not-so-subliminal message was, ‘See how picayune and pitiful is your Mac universe’.

On the other hand, the good people at the Stanford campus bookstore were enthusiasts, from whom, in the late ‘80s, I nearly bought my first Mac. The Macs basically sold themselves on the campus, but just in case you didn’t know better, you were advised that if you wanted to just get to work with (rather than ‘on’) your computer, get a Mac. Many of the med school faculty were of a similar mind. The only reason I failed to purchase one was that I was about to start my clinical rotations, and worried that I would get little use from it (bad decision on my part that led, two years later, to the purchase of a Gateway to two years of PC hell).

A take home message (and a core business axiom) of the Apple Store is, in my view, if you have a story worth telling, particularly one that is distinct from those around it, tell it yourself. Apple has been its own best advocate.

Mikuro

This article, like so many others, unfortunately ignores the excellent job the vast majority of Apple Authorized Resellers did and still do. I?m not talking about the awful experiences Ted alludes to at Best Buy, Sears or Future Shop but the ?mom and pop? dedicated Apple Resellers like TekServe or The Mac Store.

Agreed. Even today, TekServe is still a better resource than Apple stores in many ways. Their selection of peripherals puts Apple to shame, their knowledge is on par with Apple’s, and their upgrades are much cheaper. TekServe rocks.

There are some other local Mac shops in NYC, like Digital Society down on 10th street (IIRC). It’s a very small place, but they do good work. I’ve taken my Macs in there for upgrades and repairs more than once, and will likely do so again should the need arise.

When the Apple stores first came out I was afraid it would mean the death of these stores that served the Mac community so well. Fortunately, I was wrong. They’re still around today. I think Apple, intentionally or not, didn’t step on their toes very much.

As for CompUSA and BestBuy, they deserved to have their toes stomped good and proper. I did actually buy a Ruby iMac G3 from there once, though, shortly after they were discontinued and discounted. Only place I could find them.  Hooray for poor salesmanship!

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