Mac Skeptic: A Computer Store With Heart?

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I have never understood why people behave like star-struck fans about computer products. I can see waiting at a store until midnight to get the next Harry Potter installment, but the next Windows OS? Come on. And I understand this phenomenon even less when it's about a chain store. But when the newest Apple store opened in San Francisco's Union Square a couple of months ago, Mac fans lined up ten deep.

I dropped in several times recently to check out the San Francisco store on a normal day. The place is gleamingly clean and inviting, an architectural extension of Apple's industrial design. Unlike the cluttered basement that is my local CompUSA or the migraine-inducing cacophony and horrible lighting that assault me when I go to Best Buy, Apple stores encourage browsing and trying products, without the prospect of leaving feeling drained and ill. But still, they're just brick-and-mortar stores--places that aim to part you from your money.

Grandiose Claims

At the store opening, my inner cynic raised an eyebrow when Apple's senior vice president of retail started in on what wonderful community resources the Apple stores are. At the time I thought, "Here we go--a typically grandiose Apple claim." But when I learned more about the stores, my cynic gave it a rest.

The first unusual element I noticed was the theater (each of the more than 70 stores has one) where multiple classes and demonstrations are conducted every day. With a few exceptions, these classes are free, and you can just drop in. Each store's class schedule is available on Apple's Web site.

In addition, each store has regularly scheduled evening seminars aimed at various audiences, including new users, people switching to Macs, and business users ("pros," in Apple's parlance). Each store also sponsors school nights, when students from a particular school can come in and show off their digital projects to parents and teachers. There is a phalanx of Internet-connected IMacs on which people can check e-mail or Web surf, and a kids' area with EMacs loaded with children's software.

And all of Apple's hardware and software, plus a good amount of third-party hardware and software, is available to try. For example, If you want to experiment with IMovie, you can shoot some video in the store with a camcorder that's already hooked up to a Mac, import it, and start editing. If you want help, there are plenty of salespeople around who will help you. If you buy a computer, it will be personalized for you before you leave, and it's very likely that you'll know at least some basics about how to use it.

Surprise: Tech Support

Apple's Genius Bar

The most intriguing feature of the stores is the Genius Bar, a walk-up counter for technical support with Apple products. If you have a question or a problem with your Mac or IPod, you can go into the store and ask someone whose only job is to provide support. The Mac Geniuses don't rotate out to the sales floor; they're specialists. And Apple says that if you have to leave your hardware for repairs (yes, you can do that), the repairs will be done on site--not sent to a service center.

When I lurked in the Union Square store, it was buzzing. Of course, free Internet access draws people like flies; and it's not very surprising to see kids at computers. But I was surprised that the Genius Bar wasn't jammed. Signs overhead tell you how long the wait will be and who will be served next. During one lunch hour, there was no wait, and at 6:00 one evening, I waited only about 15 minutes to be helped. The Geniuses seemed to take as long as needed to solve customers' problems and did not appear harried or rushed. I was in and out, with two questions answered (accurately!), inside of 30 minutes. Even better, I got my answers without any superior attitude or baffling techno-bull.

It wasn't clear to me how to sign up for the queue when there was a wait, so I pulled a stool up to the bar and looked around expectantly until a Genius pointed me to the IBook where I could sign in. I predict that soon there will be sign-in instructions posted.

The best part was that while I waited, I grabbed a seat in the theater and checked my e-mail using the store's Wi-Fi. Other customers also milled around the bar and looked confused about how to be helped. That, however, is a far cry from trying to get help at typical computer stores, where I've found the fastest way to get a salesperson's attention is to try to look like you're about to steal something.

Apple is apparently thinking about how to manage heavy traffic at the Genius Bars. It has just announced ProCare, a $99-per-year support program that gives buyers priority service at the stores, including the ability to schedule an appointment at the Genius Bar up to a week in advance, and one-day turnaround on in-store repairs. Even if you don't pop for the service plan, you can make a same-day appointment at the Genius Bar via the Web.

You Get What You Pay For

Sure, all these fancy services are aimed at the bottom line of getting you to buy Apple stuff. But when I take classes at my local gourmet cookware shop, I have to register in advance, there's a fee, and there's some pressure to purchase gear while I'm there. And when I bring a knitting project to my local yarn store for some help, I'm usually asked if I bought the yarn there.

I don't really mind these "advice-given-with-purchase" arrangements; but when help is offered with no strings attached, it feels unusually gracious and especially welcome. I know that nothing is free. If a little extra cost is built into the Apple stores' merchandise to cover the Geniuses' salaries, I'm happy to pay it. In fact, I was so impressed that the next time I need an ink jet cartridge or another media card, I'm likely to buy it from the Apple store.

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