In-Store Studios Building on Apple’s Core Audience

Times Staff Writer

Apple Computer Inc.’s flagship retail store here has a decidedly techno buzz.

Anchoring a busy corner just off Union Square, the sleek space boasts polished maple floors, stainless steel accents and a glass staircase with thick, transparent steps to the second floor. Music from the Black Eyed Peas fills the air as salespeople in black T-shirts drift from customer to customer.

But tucked against one side of the second level in this digital utopia is a clutch of customers who struggle with the dystopian aspects of technology. A couple of retired women hunch over laptops. A white-haired man looks puzzled as an Apple staffer explains different kinds of computer cables. A woman with two teenage daughters gets briefed on setting up a home wireless network.

This is daily life at the Studio, a new area in a handful of Apple stores where experts in digital media dole out advice on such topics as how to make slide shows with digital photos, edit video and burn DVDs of the projects.


Along with the so-called Genius Bars in all Apple stores for nuts-and-bolts tech questions, the Studios are walk-up counters where Apple customers can get a rarity in today’s digital world: face-to-face, hands-on tech support.

For free.

Analysts said the idea had potential, particularly given Apple’s tiny share of the global market for personal computers.

“Happy consumers can be some of your best salespeople,” said Michael McGuire, a media expert at technology market researcher Gartner Inc., who has closely studied Apple. “In theory, the Studio will sell more computers. If they can show the value, it can have significant payoff.”

Studios are up and running in the Apple stores in London, Chicago and San Francisco. Pittsburgh and Century City have scaled-down ones, and more are to come in Apple’s network of 110 stores in the U.S., Canada, Britain and Japan.

The concept plays well with the Apple faithful.

“They’re not selling anything. They’re only selling ideas,” said Patricia Tuttle, a sixtysomething Sunday school teacher who was getting tips on using her hulking 17-inch PowerBook laptop at the San Francisco store. “They’re not getting any commission, they just love what they’re doing. It’s contagious.”

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the complexity of their products, most computer makers don’t offer free, in-person technical support.


Dell Inc., the world’s top-selling PC maker, sells almost exclusively over the telephone and Internet, so aside from some small kiosks in malls, buyers can’t meet with technical specialists. Brands such as Hewlett-Packard, Compaq and Gateway sell through big retailers, where employees deal with several brands of computers.

Apple, though, operates its own stores, and the Cupertino, Calif.-based company has made cultivating relationships with its customers a hallmark. Ron Johnson, Apple’s senior vice president for retail stores, said the company figured that customers who paid a lot for their machines should expect help in using them.

In creating any digital project on Apple computers, “you’re going to invest money,” Johnson said. “You need a Mac, with a SuperDrive so you can burn a DVD, you want to load it with software -- there are a variety of things you’re going to spend money on. Then to have to spend money for support when you want to make something, to me sounds like you’d rather have that free.”

Some customers who have caught on to the Studio concept come in at 10 a.m. and stay until 5 p.m. -- though the hard barstools can discourage long-term squatting.

“People don’t believe that it’s free and that they can ask as many questions as they like,” said Jacy Escoffier, one of the six so-called Creatives staffing the Studio in the San Francisco store.

When Apple opened its first retail stores, in Glendale and in Tysons Corner, Va., in 2001, it introduced its Genius Bars, where staff members gave advice on technical issues, such as what to do if a laptop won’t boot up properly, or answer questions about transferring files between two computers.


But the “Geniuses” were increasingly fielding questions about creative products that were beyond their expertise. So Apple set up Studios and hired Creatives to dispense the kind of advice one might ask of Ansel Adams or Steven Spielberg.

“When you have access to someone who’s done it before, they can quickly guide you in the direction to make what seems difficult easy,” Johnson said. “We thought: Wouldn’t it be great to put in our stores real filmmakers, real musicians, real photographers, real videographers ... and let them provide face-to-face support to people when they want to do a project?”

Johnson won’t say how much Apple is investing in the Studios and in hiring Creatives, other than to describe the amount as “appropriate.” Apple stores had sales of $1.1 billion, or 16.4% of the company’s total revenue in the first half of its fiscal year.

Creatives at the San Francisco store have varied backgrounds: sound engineering, film, video art, photography, Web design.

The questions people bring range from the basic -- how to download photos from a camera -- to complex issues involving superimposing video in Shake, a professional video editing program that costs as much as $5,000. Escoffier, 23, once sat through a complicated session with a filmmaker using Shake. “This was a guy who has a $50,000 studio he’s working in,” Escoffier said.

Others are entry level. Setsuko Chiba, a retired Japanese language instructor in Sacramento, spent about three hours in the San Francisco store on a recent visit, getting help with Apple’s iLife suite of photo, video and DVD software. “I read two books on iLife, but there was a lot I didn’t understand,” she said.


She started using a Mac in September, but already has created a DVD of slide shows from a December trip she took to Egypt, which she shows at the senior centers in Sacramento where she volunteers. “I did all this from scratch,” she said proudly, producing a disc customized with a label she also made.

Customers such as Chiba, who lives about 60 miles away, represent the fierce loyalty for which Apple is renowned despite its small size, only 3.3% of the U.S. market last year.

Tuttle was getting help from Virgil Scott, 32, with something fairly straightforward: printing addresses onto labels. She’s now had what amount to private lessons with Scott several times. “We have an ongoing relationship,” he said with a smile.