Before There Were Apple Stores…

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.