|by Wes George
iRant at CompUSA: Apple Needs To Buy A Clue
February 15th, 1999
I bought my first computer in 1991 so I could keep the books and create advertising for a business I was involved with.
At the time, buying a computer naturally meant going to a shopping mall. A friend of mine, a rocket scientist at NASA (seriously), told me to get a Mac and save myself the heartburn of the DOS and Windows OS concoction. I marched down to Computer City and CompUSA and even to Sears and did some serious comparison-shopping the old-fashioned way. I knew I could buy a computer mail order on the cheap, but I wanted to see computers, touch computers, and have some sales guy give me the spiel. I wanted that feel good sales experience where everyone reassures you that your hard-earned money was wisely spent on the best possible machine, since, left to my own devices, I was clueless.
First time buyers in the year 1999 aren't much different. With no guidance, s/he won't be shopping online or in catalogs until after that first in-store, cash and carry purchase. Retail outlets are still the most important forms of marketing available to Apple in spite of the online Apple Store.
In 1991, the computers at Sears were in the electronics section of the store. Sears felt they had to be modern but it was ludicrous marketing computers in a department store at the time. They sold Performas. Most on display had crashed and no one there had a clue about how they worked or what to tell prospective customers. However, unlike CompUSA today, the placement of Macs among high-end stereos and big screen televisions gave consumers a positive image of Apple. At Sears, Macs were associated with the luxuries of the electronic world.
CompUSA was PC-centric then, as it is today. In 1991, no one at CompUSA was interested in selling me a Mac. Everyone claimed they didn't know much about Macs. They didn't have half as many Mac models on display as Computer City. They made me feel silly that I wanted a Mac, like it was a sign of my ignorance! That hurt because it was true. I was ignorant. Hey, but my NASA buddy knew computers and I trusted him not to give me a bum steer.
So, I went back to Computer City, now owned by CompUSA. They had about a dozen Performas and Classics, and whatever else Apple was hawking at the time, up and running. There was a sales person at Computer City in 1991 in Austin Texas on Airport Blvd. who really loved and understood Macs. He made me feel great about getting a Mac. He convinced me that it was a superior product in every way. He did his job. So I bought my first Mac, a Classic II, at Computer City and was sure that soon Macs would be the dominant platform. I was like little Dorothy before she left Kansas.
Today it would never even occur to me to go anywhere but online to buy a computer. In fact, I'd buy everything online if I could. Funny how a revolutionary idea goes from the cutting edge to the Simpsonesque overnight. BTW, my Mac Classic II still runs like a charm sporting whopping 4Mb of RAM and OS 7.1. Does anyone out there still have their first 286 still running with the original monitor and never so much as cracked open the case? I Doubt it.
I saw an article at Maccentral.com by an African-American Mac user. He was comparing the struggle to keep your Mac with the civil rights movement of the 1960's. At first, I totally scoffed at the idea of equating the struggle to extend the Bill of Rights to all Americans with Apple's quest for market share. But after hanging out at CompUSA the other day, the idea of Mac users as members of a discriminated minority began to come into focus for me.
We are living through the dawning of the information age. Duh. Beige boxes, Office 98, bad web sites create an atmosphere of banality in our lives that belie the true implications of the changes we and our whole freaking civilization are speeding towards. Future Shock is not just an early 70's look at the millennium by techno-visionary Alvin Toffler; it's now a way of life for millions involved in the information economy. It's easy to forget how early into this whole thing we really are. In the beginning Norbert Wiener published his book "Cybernetics"(1948) making him the Vasco de Gama of the Information Age. Everyone has heard stories about the out of touch CEO that wants his CIO to have at least ten years of working experience on the web. If you ever feel high tech has passed you by, don't. This trip has only just begun.
The most recent historical event of the same magnitude as the dawning of the Information Age was the much slower launch of the industrial age in the 1700's. Stanley Kubrick, in "2001: A Space Odyssey," goes even further metaphorically comparing the awakening of freewill in Hal with the moment early man discovers of the concept of the tool. That moment long ago when some early pre-human hand reached down to pick up a rock that became the world's first tool. That's how big, how really serious, this point in time we call the late 20th century really is. (Cue "Beethoven's 5th") Like the discovery of fire, the Internet/computer fulcrum and all that they leverage will change every aspect of our children's lives beyond anything we can imagine today. It is important as Mac Users to see where our place in history really is. Here at the cusp in history is where most of the moral, esthetic, and economic trends are patterned for the next eon. Our voices united now matter more than they would at almost any time prior. We live in interesting times and with such bad luck comes the nagging responsibility to do the right thing. Today the right thing is to embrace diversity.
Mac users are a minority and there are some universal tendencies in the attitudes majorities have towards outsiders.
In racial discrimination, the main intellectual prop the majority wields to maintain its dominance is to claim racial superiority. That, combined with more brutal social tools such as segregation, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. This type of racist order can appear so seamlessly natural that people raised in entirely racist environments often have no inkling that their views are, just that, racist.
In the Information Age, the main tool of discrimination is not to claim superiority but to spread misinformation about the minority system. People raised in an entirely wintel environment often have no idea that their views are naturally prejudiced against Macs, Java, or Linux. Microsoft is the Klan of the Information Age. They target all types of diversity and wage a terror campaign of marketplace lynchings, spreading misinformation and doubt in a calculated pattern and create examples out of those who would dare to compete. Remember DRDOS? Dead and buried in an unmarked grave.
In the February issue of "Wired Magazine," a normally pro-Mac publication, on page 74, there's a blurb about Linux. I quote, "Linux was the only OS besides NT to gain market share last year." That's called misinformation. Sure, it's just an oversight on the part of the writer, but that's what discrimination is all about.
Last week a press release from One Stop Communications, a flyby-night outfit in Florida trying to bring their used car sales experience to the net, announced that they'll give away 25,000 free iMacs for some Internet spin on direct marketing. Their CEO Israel M. Rosenfield is quoted as saying, "The free Pentium 266 MHz iMac processor
." (Italics mine) More misinformation, iMacs do not have a Pentium processor. Of course, poor Mr. Rosenfield doesn't know better, to him the whole world is wintel and he can't imagine it any other way.
The Reality at CompUSA
Then Saturday, I walk into our local CompUSA on Airport Blvd in Austin, Texas. The same store I had my great experience with in 1991, though, then it was Computer City. I have to wade through the Saturday shoppers as I make for the very back of the building where the Apple "Store within a Store" is located at the back of the bus. In 1991, the Mac display was in the middle of the store along side the other PCs. Now, in the back, there are two short aisles of Mac stuff, cables, hubs, some Epsons, two PowerBook G3s on display (one is screwed-up), a G3 and at the center of it all an iMac.
I eavesdrop on a middle-aged couple talking to a sales rep about the iMac on display before them. It would be their first computer. They want to get on the Internet. They like the looks of the iMac. Someone had told them to get a Mac. The sales clerk is not encouraging. Macs are not like PCs, he warns. The software is more expensive. iMac's do not have a floppy drive, so how would you back data up? It is hard to find a printer for the iMac. Yet an Epson 740 is sitting plain as day right next to the iMac. I'm kind of hanging back, pretending I'm looking at the cool new G3. The clerk feels like he's satisfied their questions and disappears into to the PC section (the other 97% of the store). The couple looks befuddled. They wanted an iMac but all the sales rep did was sow seeds of doubt.
Some guy who has been loitering in the Apple aisle approaches the couple and starts a casual conversation. They tell him they just want a means to surf the Internet. The guy says with confidence, "The iMac is what you want. You can take it home and be on the net immediately. This is the easiest machine to use." He hangs around a bit longer to show them some of the drag and drop abilities of the Mac OS. He makes the damn sale! Then he wanders back to play with the new G3 floor model.
I was in awe. I had heard stories of Mac Evangelists hanging out at CompUSA on their weekends making sales right and left, giving demos just out of a feeling of responsibility. I asked him if he was a Mac Evangelist and he said not really. He said his name was Rick and that he was just a graphic designer who wanted to see the new form factor G3 up close and personal before he bought one online. Since he was in the store he didn't mind setting some facts straight for the couple looking for their first computer purchase. He had seen the whole discouraging spiel the sales rep gave the couple and felt he had to help out. He told me that the clerk was really trying to steer the couple to a Hewlett Packard because, "you can't read Windows files on a Mac".
Rick wasn't a Mac Evangelist. He was just one of the faithful, a good Samaritan doing what we all should do when we talk to someone less computer savvy. Newbies need guidance when making their first computer purchase. If they rely on the advice of a CompUSA sales rep, they won't buy a Mac.
In our whole hour there at CompUSA no sales person ventured into the Apple section yet dozens of customers wandered the aisles. Over in the PC aisles, that's where all the action was. The sales staff was deeply involved fielding the questions of the numerous PC customers and wasn't going near the Apple Store. It was easy for the sales reps to avoid the Apple store because it was tucked into a back corner where the discontinued and damaged stock was stored along with trash waiting to go to the dumpster. There was a busted bondi blue iMac dropped unceremoniously in a shopping cart with a HP printer shedding its guts. One got the general impression that the whole Mac display was waiting for the next heavy trash pickup.
Bring any shopping mall product display specialist to CompUSA and they will tell you that the Apple store occupies the lowest value real estate in the floor plan. In fact, for the first string high end products that Apple sells their placement in the CompUSA floor plan is pure suicide. The trashy and marginalized display imprints a nonverbal message in the consumer mind about the value and status of Macs within our culture. When they see iMacs and G3s next to the discontinued odds and ends bin the message Think Different takes on a whole new meaning and they flee back into the safety of the mainstream store with its eye-candy displays on prime real estate. It defies all the basic principles of product placement that CompUSA sells any Macs at all.
Apple seems to understand the image thing well enough. Most of their rather elitist advertising is about creating a high status image for the company. So why does Apple think that the image thing doesn't matter in their real world product displays at CompUSA? Doesn't Apple understand that CompUSA is a major interface with those first time buyers who want to touch and see the computers in real life before the make a purchase? Apple says they're the computer company for the rest of us, but you really have to be in the know to know enough to buy one in the first place!
The "Store within a Store" sounded like a good idea when it was introduced to revitalize the failing relationship Apple had with CompUSA. As it's turned out, separate but unequal is as good a deal for Apple as it was for minorities in the1960's.
(To be continued next week
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Wes George writes about the financial side of being a Mac nut. Wes has followed Apple's finances for the last 7 years and comes to The Mac Observer every Monday to tell all about his opinions. He is, in his own words, "inordinately fond of money." If you would like to write Wes, make it nice. Someday you might own a company that has something to do with Apple, and Wes will probably still be writing for The Mac Observer...... On the other hand, Mr. George is known to love a rousing, hair-raising debate, so send him your worst!
Disclaimer: This column is for informational and entertainment purposes. While Mr. George may be sage indeed, his writings can not be construed as a solicitation to buy, nor an offering to sell any particular stock. As with any trading in the financial markets, you must use your own judgment to make the best trades that you can. Neither The Mac Observer nor Wes George may be held accountable for trading advice.