A Mac showplace in Towson

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Stanley Bailey stopped by the new Apple Store in Towson Town Center last Saturday afternoon to investigate the possibility of buying a new Macintosh computer.

"I came over to see what they had and to play with their computers," Bailey, who appeared to be in his 60s, said as he manipulated an image with Adobe Photoshop 7.

He was working on a dual-processor QuickSilver G4 tower that was attached to one of Apple Computer Inc.’s 22-inch flat-screen Cinema Displays.

Bailey is the type of customer that Apple is trying to attract with its growing chain of stores: people who don’t own a Mac but who want to learn more about them -- and then buy one.

Until now, Bailey said he has been using the computers at the Parkville Public Library. He was unimpressed with the Windows PCs.

"Macs are a hell of a lot easier," he said.

Tiring of the library’s 10 cent-per-page fee for printouts and feeling a need to have a machine for more than word processing soon had Bailey thinking about a Mac.

"I like Photoshop, [Adobe] Illustrator, iMovie," he said. "I’m trying to catch up on some of this stuff."

Bailey said the only thing keeping him from buying a Mac was that he "wanted to be able to come back for support." He tried going to CompUSA Inc., which features a Macintosh section, but couldn’t find anyone knowledgeable enough for his questions.

Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., has designed its retail stores for customers like Bailey -- with plenty of hardware to ogle, plenty of Mac-savvy salespeople to talk it up -- the Towson store's staff totals about 20 -- and plenty of support during and after the sale.

"We want this to be the best place to explore, learn about and try out the Mac experience," said Allen Olivo, Apple’s senior director for retail. "And hopefully, you’ll buy one and take it home tonight."

Saturday’s opening of the Towson store marked the arrival of Apple’s 41st retail outlet. Olivo said the company plans to have 50 by the end of the year.

But some may wonder why Apple is pushing a chain of retail stores. Clearly, Mac users don’t need an Apple Store to buy Mac gear; you can find it in catalogs, at outlets like CompUSA -- and even from Apple’s online store.

Critics also point to the example of struggling PC maker Gateway Inc., which started on its chain of 300-plus stores in 1996, but has closed about as many stores over the past 18 months as Apple has opened.

Yet Apple has forged ahead, convinced that the need for physical locations to showcase its products outweighs any negative factors. According to Olivo, the goal of an Apple Store is to offer "a unique retail experience."

How?

  • First, nothing beats having a place where you can see, touch and play with the latest Apple gadgets.
  • Second, there’s the Genius Bar. There, Mac users can pose vexing technical questions to the genius on duty.If the "Genius" is stumped, there's a hotline to an even more knowledgeable genius in California. You can even bring an ailing Mac to the Genius Bar for repairs.If the fix is simple enough, Olivo said, you can have your Mac fixed while you wait.Even PC owners are welcome at the Genius Bar. Olivo said they usually pose easier questions about the mechanics of switching -- for instance, where to get comparable software or how to transfer files from an old Windows machine to a new Macintosh.
  • Third, there’s the free presentations, demonstrations and workshops offered at the Apple Store. They include sessions on such topics as learning iPhoto or an introduction to the features of Mac OS X. A different class is offered each day of the week. These no-registration-needed presentations run throughout the day.
  • And, finally, the stores help spread the Mac gospel. One of Apple’s reasons for a chain of retail outlets is to raise awareness of the platform among the multitudes who may have never used -- much less seen -- a Mac."Our strategy is to gain market share," Olivo said, noting the commonly cited statistic of Apple having about 5 percent of the computer market. "We’ve got 5 down, 95 to go."Each Apple Store is located in a major mall in a well-populated area to maximize availability to current customers as well as potential new ones.And it seems to be working. According to Olivo, about 40 percent of an Apple Store's customers at any given time are either Windows users considering the switch or first-time buyers.As for the Mac faithful, having an Apple Store nearby is akin to enjoying your own slice of heaven.Hundreds of them made the pilgrimage to Saturday’s grand opening in Towson. Some arrived well over an hour before the store's 10 a.m. opening.By kickoff time, more than 250 people were standing in line -- a scene common to the opening of every Apple Store.When store manager Bill Reinsmith appeared at the store's entrance, cheers and applause erupted.He slipped into cheerleading mode: "Are you ready?""Yes!" the crowd yelled back."I ... can’t ... hear ... you!" Reinsmith taunted. "Are you ready? Yeaahhhh!" he shouted again, shaking his upraised arms as the Mac fans roared wih him.With that, Apple Store employees formed a receiving line to welcome the first wave of customers, high-fiving each as they filed past -- eliciting cheers and "whoops!" as if they were greeting a high school football at the start of a homecoming game.But the line shrank throughout the morning, disappearing shortly after 11:30 a.m. The store, however, stayed busy throughout most of the day, with a steady 40 or so customers.Nearly all had come to Towson Town Center specifically to visit the Apple Store. The Lee family made the trip from Laurel, about 40 miles from Towson."People are very loyal to this brand," Grace Lee explained as her husband, Paul, and 3-year-old son, Adrian, played on an eMacs in the children’s area.Some were happy for a store location that doesn’t require driving on the Capitol Beltway. Baltimore Ravens team president David Modell said the store would save him the trip from his home in Federal Hill to Northern Virginia.The first Apple Store in the region opened in Tysons Corner in May 2001; the Clarendon store opened in December.Modell’s loyalty to Apple dates back to a Mac SE, which was produced in the late 1980s. He now uses a Titanium PowerBook G4."I’d rather fight than switch," he said, mocking a cigarette advertising slogan from the 1960s and '70s.For the evangelists who never stop fighting for the Mac, the new store also presents an opportunity. Its hours are 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sundays."It’s a great place for Mac users to bring your PC friends," Olivo said. "Show them why you love the Mac."
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