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Is the Apple Retail Store the New Mall Arcade?

June 6, 2011

With Apple having recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of the opening of its first branded outlets, Jay reflects on his own, recent first experience with Apple’s Retail Stores and what they mean for the ghost-town malls they often inhabit.

Late last year, I found myself in dire need of a new computer. My main computer, an iBook purchased in 2004, still got the job done most of the time, but it was really showing its age. It was our first Apple purchase, and it had performed like a champ; other Macs I used for work were close to 10 years old and still useful for non-intensive things.

I’m no fanatic, but I figured that meant the price premium came with durability and longevity. That meant were on the market for a new Mac. We’d saved up some money, so, after some deliberation, I picked out the model I thought would work for our needs and set out to do some good, old-fashioned brick-n-mortar shopping.

Rather than heading to the nearest Apple Retail Store, I went to an authorized reseller to try to be supportive of my local businesses. To cut to the chase, the customer service there was so piss-poor that I left empty-handed. I can tell you it’s quite frustrating to think you’re going to mae the most easy-going purchase ever (I knew exactly what I wanted and I had money ready to go–this should have been no muss, no fuss) and then get such a shamefully low customer service experience as to make Basil Fawlty blush with shame.

So much for that. After I stopped seething at ridiculousness of the situation, I decided to hit up the bona fide retail store and see if I fared any better.

In short, I did. Much better. For starters, I got the computer I wanted with a minimum of fuss. But I also learned a lot about Apple’s approach to its customers and how the company fits into the retail space–in particular the increasingly abandoned mall space.

About the only bad thing about my experience was my wait time, which stretched to nearly a half hour, as the Apple employees scurried to assist everyone. With some time on my hands (and a better frame of mind due to a much-needed attitude adjustment) in a popular mall I usually go out of my way to avoid, I defaulted to people-watching to pass the time.

The store was packed from one tastefully and minimally appointed wall to the other, in stark contrast to most of the rest of the mall shops, most of which were entirely or largely empty. The Apple Store was hoppin’ at 5:45 on a work night. While there were many older adults and college-age types shopping for the latest iWhatevs, I quickly noticed that there were a whole lot of kids in the store. At first, I assumed that these kids belonged to the shoppers in the store. But, I found out that this was not the case at all.

Once my salesperson had taken care of the necessities, I asked a few questions: Why is the store so busy? Is it always like this? Are there always this many kids? (I’m not kidding–they were legion, and they were loud.)

His answers surprised me, and I guessed they saddened me, too, as they intimated the sounding of a death knell for what I considered a childhood institution: loitering in the mall arcade. While the store’s business was usually brisk, according to the employee, the long lines weren’t a matter of high demand for iPads and iPhones and so on. While many kids were plonked down at the store’s allotted tables as a distraction while mom got the hottest new iPhone case, most weren’t hogging Mac demo hardware for just a few minutes.

According to this Apple employee, the store was always busy, always packed, and usually with younger kids, because the Apple Retail Store is now the Mall Baby Sitter. Whereas my parents or care providers would send me off to the Gold Mine with a small stack of quarters and a large reminder to be outside Sears by *no later than 8:15*, the thing to do these days, apparently, is to tell Jack and Jill to hang out in the Apple Store while Mom gets her Bath and Body Works on.

This strategy doesn’t seem all that bad at first, but I’m sure store workers don’t appreciate being forced into acting in loco parentis. Even good kids are rowdy and loud. Watching over these children not only takes away from worker efficiency, but it also takes away potential sales. I almost went home when I saw the sheer number of people seemingly packed into that place to actually buy something; I’m guessing others walked on by. If you see me walking down the street and I start to cry….

Beyond griping about shoddy parenting or bottom-line losses or customer relationship management, maybe I’m just uncomfortable with change. My childhood preferences are being “obsoleted.”  They are often replaced with something that seems more distant, more cold, less social. In that store, I watched nearly a dozen kids at play, but they never interacted with one another. I think back to shoveling quarter after quarter into Double Dragon, Rampage, Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, Area 51, RoboCop and all the rest, many times pulling in other kids for a coin-op cooperative battle against ever-larger level bosses, and I have to wonder if trading the TimeOut for the Game Center was at all fair.

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  1. Turn it off! Turn it off! « The Brown Tweed Society

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