Retail Therapy: Inside the Apple Store
2013 Column Contest Winner
This isn’t brick and mortar, it’s glass and steel. J. K. Appleseed takes you backstage at Apple Retail, the supercollider of human expectations and consumer technology.
What, if anything, would you stand in line for all night? Front row tickets to your favorite band? A cameo on your favorite show? A spot for your child in that better school?
Churches, synagogues, and mosques don’t ask, but if they did, could they get their flocks to wait in line for a day? For three days straight? For a week? I wonder. Are guilt and the promise of eternal life sufficient motivators?
Religious fervor is on my mind as I walk in the bright morning sunlight from the parking lot to my Apple Store. I pass the line of people waiting for the new iPhone, and most have been camping on that filthy walkway all week. Don’t they have jobs? Or classes? Or significant others? These hardcores wouldn’t deign to pick one up next week. They need it today. They’re in it to win it. They are so lucky it never rains here.
Apple owns the “product launch.” They first weaponized public relations 31 years ago, way before Samuel L. Jackson chatted with Siri, way before the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” campaign, and way before those black silhouettes gyrated with white iPods over bright colored backgrounds.
It was in 1984 that a funky, one-minute spot showing an Amazonian Olympian shattering a movie screen with a hammer toss (apparently bringing down a fascist dystopia) took ad agency awards and water-cooler conversations by storm. This was Apple’s “1984” ad heralding the Macintosh, the first television commercial specifically produced to premiere during a reliably well-watched sporting event called the Super Bowl.
T-Minus two months
People expect game-changers from Apple on a regular basis. The first signs of a product launch cycle appear earlier and earlier each year, kind of like Christmas advertising. Customers ask when the new products will come out, convinced that the store geniuses are in the know. Will the next big thing be so important as the first Mac, the first iPod, the first iPhone, or the first iPad? We explain that no retail store employee could possibly know, but no one ever believes us. Why?
“Because I read it on the Internet!”
While print magazines collapse left and right, dozens of tech blogs thrive by catering to insatiable curiosity about Apple. It’s a tech-to-tech mutualism, insuring neither the blogs nor Apple ever quite fade from the headlines. One site tracks and dissects all the company’s public patent applications, like paparazzi sifting through celebrity garbage or ancient druids doing goat gut prognostication. Another predicts future product launch schedules based on the length of previous product life cycles, not unlike a farmers almanac. There is even a secondary layer of blogs, like parasites, which live and die by keeping score on how accurate or inaccurate the other ones were in their guesses. Because of this ecosystem, speculation is often sold as fact. Interest and demand remain high, but so do the frequency and severity of fraudulent theories.
Isn’t it common sense that if you run the world’s most valuable company, said value hinging on technological secrets, that you would take the safer route of not telling your retail employees anything they shouldn’t leak?
Our customers can’t wait for real news. Well, I reply, neither can we.
T-minus nine days
Finally, CEO Tim Cook introduces the iPhone 5s and the iPhone 5c. The release date is announced. The countdown begins.
Several million products must be shipped all around the world, including online preorders and those sent to select tech reviewers. Each store’s work schedule gets locked down. We hear the phrase, “All hands on deck situation” over and over from the managers, which means that anyone and everyone who staffs the store will work on Launch Day.
T-minus seven days
At first, the news coverage is all about lines. Producers must sit around thinking about how to turn lines into fresh stories. Who was the first person in line? Some guy in Tokyo. How long does it take to walk along the line? Seven minutes if you’re in New York. For how much can you sell your place in line? Couple hundred bucks. Really?
T-Minus Four days
Here are some things I say:
“This isn’t Cupertino, and I’m not an designer. I don’t know why one model is gold.”
“You’re right. I can’t say for sure that the next iPhone won’t have x-ray capability. I just think that the whole causing-cancer thing would be problematic.”
“No, ma’am. How would a taser app even work?”
T-Minus 47 hours
I didn’t know who David Pogue was until I went to work for Apple. He covers technology for the New York Times and releases a parody video review of the iPhone 5s, discussing fake features such as the ability to unlock cars, a night vision camera, and a mood sensor. The running joke is that the expectations of technological breakthroughs with each iPhone release are so impossible to meet, they deserve mocking. Saturday Night Live has a particularly acute send-up in which Chinese factory workers confront the whiniest tech bloggers face to face about what is truly tough in life. It’s almost as though Apple gets double mileage in their media coverage, because every story ends up covering not only Apple but also the media coverage of Apple. Could any competitor even pay for that kind of attention?
Some try. When Microsoft launched their tablet, they paid a small fortune to have the back cover ad on Newsweek. Stephen Colbert held the issue up to the camera during his show, but then, almost snickering, he turned the magazine over, pointing out the front cover story, which was all about the iPad.
Business articles cover this launch from a tactical point of view. The 5c, unfortunately becoming known as the “cheaper” one, addresses exploding demand among China and India’s aspirational middle classes. That is some serious, big picture strategizing. It’s so over my head with respect to emerging markets, exclusive telephony contracts, and international price point setting, that I simply conclude the product launch is too big for me. It’s everywhere, and now I’m failing to get a good night’s sleep before taking my tiny part in it. Do I feel like I have some sliver of ownership in all this, or am I a rube to think so?
T-Minus Twelve Hours
Back of House teams receive truckloads of iPhones, break down the boxes within boxes, and plan out efficient distribution for the next day.
Inventory Control Specialists, a subset of Back of House, have a long night ahead, too. They set up and maintain displays, most of which will have to be replaced and loaded with updated software. In a random, unscientific sampling of 13 stores visited in four countries, I swear on a stack of bibles, the display teams are consistently staffed by cool female geeks.
I don’t know if that job attracts a kind of person who enjoys meticulous presentation, or if in-store, display work may offer some refuge for non-confrontational types from more potentially customer-complaint-intensive positions like sales or repair, but I’m telling you, if you want to learn about a cool new band you’ve never heard of from an attractive woman in glasses, talk to ICS.
Thank them for setting up every Mac on which you’ve ever checked your email, for all those evenly spaced Lucite displays, for bundling those gleaming power cables, and for replacing those giant films of products you’d never noticed before, floating up on bright backlighting above the steel walls. Thank them for pulling all-nighters like theater techies before the big show that is each product launch.
T-Minus 45 minutes
I’ve got to clock in early, and I’m walking past the line. Deja Vu. There are folding chairs, sleeping bags, coolers, and interesting smells. Some of the campers watch me watch them. I doubt they think I’m planning to butt in line.
“Please!” I imagine saying. “I got that cobalt shirt, y’all. I’m going right in, fools!”
I don’t actually talk like that, but skipping a long line of musky hipsters and local news crews does give me a rush.
T-Minus 30 minutes
In the back of the store, Van, a Filipino-American Specialist who collects vintage sneakers, is trying his combination on several white lockers, punctuating each failed attempt with a palm slam on the door.
“I could swear it was this one!”
BANG! He forgets which locker is his pretty much every day. It’s worse on Launch Day, because not only are they not assigned, but there are actually more employees present than normal. Since you can’t always get the same locker, I usually fold one of my business cards to show through the vents, even though that’s considered a geek-amongst-geeks move.
BANG! There’s a little tension in the air.
T-Minus Ten Minutes
We make a big blue huddle. Black curtains block the view into our glass wall. We can’t see them, but they’re all out there, waiting. The customers. The camera crews. The police.
Our store manager has really amazing hair. It doesn’t move while he delivers an earnest, if predictable pep talk. How are we feeling, have fun, make each customer count, don’t talk to the media, remember we catered lunch, this is what it’s all about—and have fun.
T-Minus Two Minutes
Party music blasts. Don’t casinos flood gambling floors with oxygen? We should do that. Some employees dance. Most clap. I don’t want to clap at first, but there are some very cute co-workers I haven’t met before—I guess we must be on different work schedules—and they’re clapping, so I find myself clapping when two managers suddenly sweep back the curtains and open the door.
3… 2… 1… ZERO!
We all clap and cheer the first customer through the doors. He looks young. He’s stuffed his camping gear into a backpack, and he raises his fists to receive the ovation. We keep on clapping for the next 20 or 30 shoppers who file in, subtracting one clapper per customer. My hands start to sting. As the clapping finally fades, one customer comes in and does a little touchdown shimmy, which raises just enough temporary applause to be slightly awkward.
T-Plus Four Minutes
I sell my first iPhone. It’s insane how many we have stacked up ready to go. The actual numbers are confidential, but big. We are making a lot of money today.
T-Plus 18 minutes
A few employees have gotten plum assignments photographing today’s event. Some distribute smiles and bottled water outside. It’s a smooth operation, honed over numerous previous iPhone and iPad product launches. Customers who’ve camped in line know just what they want. They’re ready to get it and go.
My friend Max sidles up to one brunette co-worker we’d somehow never seen before. He notices me noticing him flirt with her, and he shoots me a wink.
T-Plus 31 Minutes
I bump into Max weaving across the crowded floor and ask how he’s doing.
“Why?” he snorts. “Is today different somehow?”
T-Plus 50 Minutes
I’m like a bartender. I’m the guy giving people what they want. Wait, I’m the enabler then, too. Feh.
T-Plus Two Hours
My buzz is wearing off. My cheeks hurt from smiling too much, and my feet feel tired. The store’s awfully warm today. All these bodies.
T-Plus Three Hours
Break time. The managers have ordered a catered lunch for us, a kind gesture that also happens to reduce how many of us would have to break through the customer line exiting and re-entering the store. It’s upscale Mexican, and it’s pretty good. So is sitting down.
Van discovers they’ve just run out of beef empanadas. He may be back in the Red Zone by the time the next scheduled delivery arrives.
He shakes his head, “How can they expect me to last all day on pollo?”
T-Plus Five hours
There are two kinds of employees in Los Angeles: those that list which celebrities they’ve helped, and those that pretend not to keep track. Sara keeps track. She’s pretty—she was a good choice to give line duty—and she’s our chief gossip. She spreads a rumor that someone “involved with Breaking Bad” checked out the line, but was too classy to cut in. I can’t tell if she’s kidding, and it’s impossible to confirm, not only because that show films in Albuquerque, but because “involved with” could mean it was a sound technician, not an actor. We actually debate whether or not we would have cut the guy a break, as though it were up to us.
This must be the kind of petty power that bouncers flex in front of clubs. None of us seems very used to wielding this kind of authority. I started the morning mulling over religion and by the afternoon I’m debating power. The real power is to produce this much want worldwide, to focus the media, and to mobilize a retail army.
Max invites me to duck out with him to grab some caffeine power.
T-Plus Eight Hours
One more hour and I’ll be done. I don’t know which current customers were among the overnighters or if they just got in line today. I hope we’ve finished with the overnighters. Any employee who requests to work overtime gets it approved on Launch Day. I wonder what people promise themselves with that bit of extra cash. Some music? A dinner out? Stiff drinks?
Van is helping one customer, when another grabs him by the arm.
“You’re going to help me!”
Van says, “I’m sorry, I’m helping this person right here.”
The grabber immediately drops the F-bomb in Van’s face and stomps off.
Van’s customer is shocked, “Did he just… did that just happen?”
“All day, man.” Van says. “All day.”
T-Plus Ten hours
I stay a little late. I don’t know if it’s worth the overtime, but in the end, we need the help. Plus, I find out the brunette’s name is Rachel.
“This makes it all worthwhile!”
Who even says something like that? I turn to see Van, closing his locker.
I can’t resist, “What makes what all worthwhile?”
He holds up his new gold, excuse me, his champagne, iPhone 5s.
“Don’t hate!” he grins.
“How can you afford that?”
“It’s a gift from my dad.”
“He came in today!?”
“No, dummy. I bought it for myself. He’s paying.”
“Got that Touch ID, son! I’m going home. Mom’s making beef! Peace!”
So, that happened.
T-Plus One day
The LA Times reports a fight broke out in the line at the Pasadena store. I feel bad for them, but I’m glad no one got hurt. Just a phone, folks.
T-Plus Three Days
Samsung announces that they too will now sell smart phones in a gold color. What a coincidence, the Apple blogosphere chuckles.
T-Plus Five Days
On Facebook, you may remember how that cool video shot from the back of an eagle got replaced by posts of Louis CK’s bit on why his daughters wouldn’t get smart phones. To me, it seemed like a response to the iPhone frenzy, but for that week, everything did.
T-Plus Six Days
Every time I think this product launch media cycle has closed, another article pops up. Apple sold an estimated 8 million iPhones the first weekend. It’s then calculated and announced that the iPhone business alone is more valuable than McDonald’s and Coca-Cola sales combined.
I’m not the kind of guy who camps out for tickets or iPhones, but I recognize tidal waves. I haven’t figured out if I hate or love my place in them. I just look forward to regular time, whatever that means—days that aren’t just before nor just after some crazy thing. Blessedly in-between days, I guess.
See you then.
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