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Service, Fun at the Core of Apple Store’s Appeal

glenda.mccarthy@latimes.com

When news hit that Apple was opening its own stores, one of my oh-so-PC colleagues quipped that at last those weird Mac people would have a place to find each other, to gather and bond and perhaps even find the love of their lives.

He could have a point, even though hard-core Mac loyalists have been gathering in user groups and connecting in more creative ways for years. Mac users like me, who take their choice of computer a bit less seriously, do tend to click more easily with each other than with those who do Windows.

But please, we don’t need Apple to bring us together.

Apple’s core intention in entering the pricey retail arena is to entice users of other computers--you know, the other 95%--to come in and give Macs a spin. That’s why it plunked one of its first two outlets in the middle of the Glendale Galleria.

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Apple’s hype over the opening of its first stores is that it’s offering a new hands-on world of Mac shopping, for loyalists as well as the uninitiated.

So how closely does the hype fit reality?

Since I’d been toying with the idea of moving up from the iMac I bought a few years ago, I figured I might as well visit the new store to check out the latest, uh, merchandise. I’ve had my fun at CompUSA and Fry’s before, finding Macs on display in various degrees of usability and searching sometimes in vain for a salesperson who knows much about them.

But I decided to try them out again--at the outlets near my home and the ones within a short drive from the Apple Store--along with a couple of independent dealers.

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My mission was to evaluate the shopping experience at each store, to play on the display models and to get opinions on which system would best fit my needs. My needs are simple: I’m ready finally to start burning CDs, e-mailing photos and short video clips, and all at a more comfortable speed than my iMac would allow.

I’d seen ads for the low-end Cube at $1,299. High-end iMacs are priced at $1,499. Adding a cheap monitor to the Cube for a few hundred bucks would bring the systems close in price. (Prices on new Macs are the same wherever you shop, although you can find occasional offers of RAM upgrades that are already on the cheap side.)

The Apple Store stood out as a unique experience, which is understandable given its mission. Stepping through the entryway on a Saturday afternoon, I’m struck by the buzz of activity and mix of songs, chatter and children’s laughter. It’s loud but not unbearable.

Nearly everywhere I look, there’s a person wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the Apple logo, either with a customer or in motion.

I count at least 11 salespeople.

Computers are lined along two long walls, separated into sections to highlight different features, including general consumer and professional uses.

The photo-editing and video-editing areas display several machines outfitted with cameras, including the laptops on stand-alone tables. Toward the back of the huge room is a child-size table with iMacs all around.

There’s plenty of room to move and lots of elbow room at each of the numerous computers on display.

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I head for the computers under the Rip, Mix and Burn sign, plant myself at one of the iMacs and within seconds I’m calling up songs from iTunes, a program I hadn’t used before, blissfully undisturbed. I play on the other computers in that section and go on to others.

From the back of the store comes an announcement that a demonstration of OS X is about to begin. About 25 to 30 people wander toward the screen that takes up much of the back wall.

The presenter, amazingly enough, can be heard above the kids playing at the table of rainbow iMacs nearby.

When I decide to query a salesperson on the floor, I find someone quickly.

She’s relaxed and friendly, and ready with precise answers to my questions.

She recommends an iMac over a low-end Cube, citing the latter’s lack of a CD-RW drive, as well as a monitor, and saying that the iMac probably would be faster with the programs I plan to use.

The mid-level iMac would be fine, but the higher end offers more power if I want to spend a few hundred dollars more, she says.

When I ask whether the store is for display only, her speedy response is that I could take any of the computers there home today. “We’ll bring them to your car, we’ll get them to you however you want!”

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I decide to compare the iMac’s speakers with those sleek external Harman Kardons set up in the next-door section. “Good luck!” she says with a chuckle, volunteering that “the only time it’s quiet in here is around 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., when we’re closed.”

I take her card, saying I want to play some more, and head over to the video section, where a friend is working with iMovie. After a few minutes of fun but little progress, I look around and attract a sales guy right away.

“How does this work?” is my simple request. He leads us through the steps of manipulating and editing a clip of ourselves over the last minute or so, and doesn’t leave until he’s assured that all our questions are answered.

All of the desktops and laptops I tried were in fine working order. And all were equipped with Mac’s latest operating system, OS X.

I noticed that some machines had RAM levels much higher than the standard for the model. The low-level iMac, for example, comes with 64 megabytes of RAM, but some on display had 256 MB.

I was assured at the Genius Bar--where customers pepper workers with questions--that a performance difference would show only when using several programs at once. RAM is added to the displays so they’ll support OS X, which takes a minimum of 128 MB.

I also asked at the Genius Bar about a recommendation I’d gotten from a CompUSA salesman that a low-end iMac would suit my needs well, with the addition of some RAM and a CD-RW drive. The two behind the bar agreed, offering their reasoning in click-and-clack fashion.

To my surprise, the worst experience I had was with independent dealers.

At one shop, I was met by a salesman who was friendly enough but held an all-too-eager look, a look that turned blank when I presented the Cube vs. iMac question. He resorted to reading a list of features from an iMac box.

A table tucked in the back displayed a few machines but noiMac. Upon request, a salesman pulled one out of an already opened box, set it up and stood behind me, arms crossed, as I searched in vain for a program to play with.

At another independent, a model of each Mac was displayed, with all but the Cube operational. A pleasant salesman’s response to the G4-iMac question was that the G4 would be a better deal because it’s faster. Follow-up questions were met mostly with nods and shrugs. He kept looking away, seeking an escape.

I soon gave it to him and escaped myself.

On my visits to Fry’s and CompUSA stores I found several Macs that were inoperable, at least without sales help. Some displayed windows asking for passwords or registration numbers. Others showed clear signs of customer abuse, making it difficult for someone unfamiliar with a Mac to do much on them.

No salespeople interrupted me or other customers who found a working machine to play on for several minutes.

The salespeople seemed more Mac-savvy than I’d experienced the last time I shopped for a new computer, but a few seemed downright bored or at least unenthusiastic. Most showed signs of impatience after several questions.

Back at the Apple Store, salespeople were nothing if not enthused.

In fact, you could call them fired up. Still, they were all patient and engaged, ready and eager to answer questions on both software and hardware but not in the least overbearing or condescending. They beat all the others hands down.

Not only is it the sole place where you actually can work with video and photos and burn a CD, it’s the only place where you can be certain to find well-maintained machines.

Of course, customers can quickly wreak havoc on displays, making maintenance a tough job for retailers. But I’d rather go with the place that has the largest number of computers and biggest staff to keep them in shape.

I’d also choose to shop and buy in a place where people seem to have such a good time.

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Glenda McCarthy is an assistant Business editor for The Times.


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