Apple Store Revisited: Looking For Dirt At the Tampa Apple Store

Over the Thanksgiving Holiday I had a chance to stop in on the folks at the Apple store in Tampa Florida. I was at the store during its grand opening, and although a lot of more serious events had taken place on the week of September 15, the opening of the Apple store was one small bright spot for the folks in Tampa.

That was 4 months ago, and a lot can happen in 4 months.

Iim not a reporter, I donit even play one on TV, but I thought that this would be an opportunity to do a great in-depth story, uncovering the seedy underbelly of Apple and its stores. I wondered if, after 4 months in existence, I would find a store nearly devoid of customers, sales associates idly playing solitaire, and dusty Macs stacked to the ceiling. Perhaps I would uncover a heart-rending story of courage and triumph over adversity. Maybe I could expose something supernatural and mysterious, something that would make a readeris hair stand on end. I smelled a Pulitzer. I had my trusty Kodak 3600 Digital Camera, but no paper or pen, and no micro-tape recorder. I would have to make do.

As I approached the store a smiling man was leaving with a sales person in tow who was pushing a dolly loaded with a G4 system and other goodies, definitely a good sign. I noticed people stopping to look and point at the eye-catching displays featuring the iPod. Inside the store a good number of shoppers and browsers occupied nearly every Mac kiosk, several kids played games in the Kid Section, and the Genius Bar was doing a brisk business: more good signs of health, but no dirt. I had to dig deeper.

Ronda Carty, the Assistant Store Manager, welcomed me with a warm smile and extended hand. We had talked during the storeis opening, and she remembered me. We chatted as we walked through the store. Here was my opportunity. I would fire some biting, gut-knotting questions at her, and then I would just sit back and watch her squirm.

"So, Ronda, howis business?" OK, not gut-knotting, but I was just getting started.

"Itis been great," she replied in a tone that must have been false bravado. Her enthusiasm was as high as it was when I first met her 4 months before. I knew she must be hiding something. "Business has been pretty steady."

As we talked the number of customers in the store swelled. "Thatis the way it has been," Ronda said. "There will be a number of people, then suddenly a lot more will show up. It ebbs and flows like that all day."

The number of customers ebbs and flows… Could that mean that there were times when there were no customers? I was onto something! I would have to pursue that line of questioning further, but before I could, Dan Bell, another Apple Store rep and past acquaintance, came up and gave me a smile and a hardy handshake. There must be some really deep dirt if everyone is smiling at me and shaking my hand. I noticed that all of the store personnel smiled and shook customeris hands; an insidious ploy to divert me from the truth if ever I saw one. Maybe I could get more information from Dan since Ronda was being so wily. I asked Dan the same question; howis business?

"Things just couldnit be better,i he said.

They must be all in on it, whatever "it" was.

Dan led me to the iPod display. "You gotta try this," he said excitedly. While several shoppers and browsers gathered, Dan handed me a pair of the new Bose Noise Canceling Headsets. "Try these on and listen," he said.

Maybe he wanted to whisper something to Ronda and wanted me out of earshot, the headsets were intriguing though, so I tried them on while keeping a wary eye on Dan. The headsets didnit sound any different than regular headsets, that is to say I heard the muffled sounds of the store and nothing else.

Dan never moved and continued to smile at me, and then he pushed a button on the small control attached to the headsets. "Now, what do you hear?"

I was amazed. Nearly all background noise disappeared. It was like I was in a sound proof room. I could barely hear myself talk and had to be mindful of how loud I spoke. "Cool!"

Dan then plugged the headset connector into the iPodis jack and pressed play. Immediately the absence of sound was replaced by soul filling rich, full-bodied music. I grabbed the iPod and cranked up the volume. I was in musical heaven.

I reluctantly returned the iPod and the Bose headsets, then I realized that, in my amazed stupor while playing with the Bose headsets and iPod, I had forgotten Danis unscrupulous ploy to divert my attention. He had succeeded. No one knows what secrets he might have passed on to Ronda or the other store reps. All was not lost, however, as I still had more questions for Ronda, so I sought her out. She made a show of ignoring me while pretending to help a customer, who, in turn, pretended to buy some software. I have to hand it to her, sheis good, that Ronda.

I decided to take an off-center approach to my questioning by attempting to win her trust. I asked if she had any memorable incidents.

Rondais never-ending smile broadened after thinking for a moment, "Iid say that would have to be the time when a husband surprised his wife on a shopping spree. He walked her from around the corner, where the mall entrance is, with his hands over her eyes and stood her in front of our store. I, and several of the Apple Store associates, had seen what was about to happen and quickly lined up behind the counter at the storeis entrance to participate. As he removed his hands from her eyes, he said, "This is for you." When she saw where she was, we all said, "WELCOME TO APPLE!" The woman let out a scream, started hugging her husband, and cried with excitement. The couple spent about 4 hours in the store and was back again the next day."

Ronda paused for a second or two, then added, "We have seen many people enter our store saying phrases of disbelief or chanting, iYES, YES, YES!i Some bring cameras to take pictures of the store or have them taken of themselves in the store. We not only get folks from the Tampa area, we are seeing people from Orlando (2 hours away), Gainesville (3 hours), Jacksonville (5 hours away), and other areas making their way here just to visit. Weive had customers from Spain, Venezuela, Canada, Britain and Ireland as well."

As if on cue, a very tall young man strode into the store with a rather expensive, professional video camera tucked under his arms, and a small entourage in tow. The group headed straight for the DV kiosk. His serious countenance morphed into one of nirvana-like happiness as he played with the Mac and Final Cut Pro. The young man signaled one of the busy store associates, who seemed to be happy to answer his questions.

Ronda leaned close to me and confided, "Each day you will see smiles on the faces of our team and everyone that enters the store. Each day is an adventure. We are constantly discovering new ways to assist customers in finding better ways to use their Macs, and we strive to stay abreast of developments that can help them now and in the future."

Ronda looked at me impishly, "We especially like to see the reactions of folks who use other types of computers discover what Mac are capable of. Often, after viewing a demo or playing with a Mac for a bit, they will start picking out the CPU they want to take home with them."

I snapped a few pictures, but my heart had gone out of it. There was no dirt to be dug up here. The Tampa Apple store was doing just great. They have a great team that knows how to keep customers happy. I could see my Pulitzer fading away as I walked from the store. I wouldnit be disheartened for long, however, as I just happened to buy Alien vs Predator while I was in the store. If thereis anything that assuages my sorrow for having not found anything gritty to write about at the Apple store, playing AvP with the lights out would, but thatis another story.

Vern Seward is a frustrated writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. Heis been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.