The New Apple Stores & The Macintosh Experience
I have read a lot about the likely advent of Apple Stores. Such retail outlets would allow Apple to boast a physical presence throughout the United States to highlight its Macs and lure more buyers to the Macintosh platform. The idea makes sense since too many authorized resellers do not serve the cause right. That's why Apple has divorced many chains for the second time in recent years.
Why would Apple invade the brick and mortar retail world? I believe I read somewhere that Apple wants to bring the Macintosh experience to the common folks. My apologies to the original source, my memory fails to remember where this comes from. In any case, bringing the Macintosh experience to consumers is exactly what Apple needs.
The Macintosh, in the retail universe, is a bit of an alien. In a marketplace dominated by PCs, the Mac does not compare properly. Compaq, HP, Dell and other giants can show off all their units side by side, and the consumer will be able to evaluate what is the best buy. On a sales floor where all computers run Windows, you can easily determine which Windows PC is right for you, but you cannot find out if a Mac is the right thing.
Exhibiting an iMac besides a bunch of PCs does not do justice to Apple's technology. How can a consumer, in his brief moments of shopping, determine why the Macintosh is a better purchase? He has no basis for comparison, mostly because he has most likely never even discovered the platform. He maybe sees it when he hits a store and plays around with the desktop, but he acquires very little knowledge about it.
Enter the price tag and the megahertz issue. The iMac's price is higher than the generic PC's cost, and the latter offers more megahertz which translates into "faster" in his mind. The consumer's limited knowledge does not allow him to understand why megahertz do not count, and without real familiarity with the Mac, he cannot realize why an iMac is the best option. Since he knows Windows-based PCs and he fears the potential bumps on the road to a different operating system, he sticks with Intel and AMD boxes and buys his new, say, HP Pavilion.
My bio, located at the end of every column, says that I switched to the Mac in 1994. How did it happen? I had seen the Macintosh alongside PCs in stores before, but I didn't know squat about it. When I started college, I decided to work for the school's student newspaper. They were running Macs. I used those Macs to write, do page layout and perform other tasks. After a few months, without noticing, I did everything on those Macs, including my papers. I tasted the Macintosh flavor and never looked back.
Apple must have realized how users, just as I did, get to discover the Mac. To impress consumers, it takes more than a side-by-side comparison in stores where nobody will even say "you have to know this about the Mac." The selling of a Macintosh requires a form of education about the platform, and many times, fervent advocacy.
Why? Joe Public does not know the Mac. He overlooks the real value of a Mac, just as I did. He does not know why the interface is superior and intuitive, he does not know why using a Mac is so magical to you and I. He needs to learn what the Macintosh experience feels like. Switching a user to a new platform requires guidance from a seasoned veteran.
I mean the type of guidance that pro-Apple retailers can offer, but such stores cannot conquer the market themselves. This is the kind of guidance that Apple itself can offer, however. Enter the brick and mortar Apple Store.
Too many chains offer the Mac as just another PC, which is faulty. The Macintosh needs to be in a commercial world of its own, where you can learn what the platform is about and compare all the products of the Apple line.
It can, outside of Apple's walls, sell if someone is around to help.
Last week, I was walking on St. Catherine Street in downtown Montreal. While waiting at a street corner, I remembered that a store called CompuSmart (a Canadian chain) was near. Knowing that they sell Macs, I decided to snoop in for a few minutes.
At the entrance, I saw the section where they displayed an iBook, a Sage iMac and a Cube. The Mac was in a section of its own. The Cube setup was the nicest. It had the 17" Studio Display, the Harman Kardon SoundSticks, the Pro Mouse and a nice mouse pad.
This setup was gorgeous. The clear plastics took advantage of the lighting conditions; the hardware was nicely positioned. They had selected a fine desktop picture, and iTunes was playing the music of singer Nelly Furtado (who won the Best New Solo Artist award at the Juno Awards in Canada). The SoundSticks gave a great feel of how music sounds on a Mac.
I played around with iTunes and the rest of the multimedia software and told salespeople, who wanted to tell me more about the Mac, that I needed no help. I was trying to attract curious customers. When someone came over and looked at what I was doing, he told me that it seemed so easy. I told him that this was the essence of the Macintosh. He loved the sound and the interface. I had him do a few things with iTunes and the desktop. He was impressed. So were many others who saw me using the Cube in the store.
Most people who talked to me seemed amazed by the multimedia and entertainment capabilities of a Mac. This is why I made it a duty to remind them how the same machine runs productivity suites such as Office, crunches numbers with statistics software and performs complex image editing in Photoshop. In a few minutes, I showed them the power, the entertainment and the great feel of a brand new Macintosh. This is what a CompuSmart salesman wanted to do with me in the first place. This is how you sell a Mac.
This is exactly what Apple wants to see. Not many resellers will display a great setup and guide you with enough advice to know the Mac. Apple is aware of that, and Apple wants to take care of it... personally.
With brick and mortar Apple Stores, Apple should be able to boost its sales by providing a Macintosh experience to consumers and tempt them into buying from Apple instead of a PC maker. This sounds like an intelligent sales strategy.
A bothersome question is whether consumers will visit the Apple branded store. They are likely to come over in greater numbers than at the typical Mac-only specialist, since Apple has the indispensable magnetism to draw attention. However, such stores could not cause casual awareness of the Mac just as a Cube does in a CompuSmart store. This is indeed an important question, and it reminds us that Apple, if it launches a major retail offensive, needs to maintain the presence of efficient authorized retailers.
To me, the physical Apple Store sounds like a great complement to the existing channels and an excellent approach to bring the Macintosh experience to the masses. It should, however, never become a tactic of competition against existing stores that already do a fine job at selling the Mac.