Why is an Apple store opening such a big deal?

31st Oct 2009 | 11:00

Why is an Apple store opening such a big deal?

We went to the Brighton branch opening to find out

Waiting for the Apple store to open

Frankly, we weren't sure what to expect when we pitched up in Brighton at the tail end of August for the opening of Apple's 21st retail store in the UK.

Of course we'd been to the opening of the first – the flagship Regent Street store in London – and had been caught up in the enthusiasm and excitement of staff and punters alike, but surely the fact that a shop is opening somewhere that already sells Apple kit is hardly something to get het up about?

Boy, were we wrong. We set off from Bath at 5:30am in order to arrive in time for a preopening press briefing with Nye Wright, the store's Manager, but when we rocked up to the new store in Brighton's Churchill Square shopping centre just after 8am, there was already a queue forming.

(And while this isn't in the same league as the camping-out-for-days-beforehand stunts that we've seen at the opening of, say, the Regent Street and Fifth Avenue stores, we were nevertheless impressed that as the store opened – and even half an hour after it did – the queue was easily a couple of hundred strong.)

Hugs and high-fives

For the traditionally reserved Brits, California-flavoured Apple events are often a little awkward.

You could never accuse an Apple Store employee of being surly or pessimistic, but it has to be said that, in the build-up to the opening – with the team inside the glass-fronted store hugging, swaying around in a ring, and high-fiving – that there were a few raised eyebrows and muttered, puzzled accusations of oddly cult-like behaviour.

The whole morning was one of an odd mix of passion and confusion; most of the folks in the queue, by dint of their very presence, would probably say they were hardcore Apple fans, and they were rightly excited about the opening.

And yet for the rest of the world there in Brighton that day, the whole event was anathema. When people learned that the whoopin' and a-hollerin' that accompanied the doors opening marked nothing more than a store opening – and, worse, that the little boxes being given out to the first few through the doors contained not 'free iPhones' as the rumour was but mere T-shirts – we were treated to the full gamut of emotions from bafflement to scorn by way of pity.

Just before the doors opened – after being given their final pep talk by the Store Manager – all the T-shirted employees broke out of the store and did a lap of honour around the top level of Churchill Square, high-fiving all the folks in the queue.

Nye wright

THE BOSS:Nye Wright, the store's Manager, is American, but tells us he loves Brighton

And when the doors did open after an excited countdown, the staff, lined up inside the store on either side of the door, applauded wildly and high-fived the folks in the queue as they streamed into the shop. And for many this was no mere pilgrimage; within minutes of the store opening, people were walking out carrying iMacs, MacBooks and more.

Some told us they'd wanted to buy a Mac but had been waiting until Apple opened a store nearby.

The effect on the local resellers

And yet as you might expect for such a creative part of the world, the Mac using populace was already well served, with existing dedicated Apple shops on the high street in both Brighton and Hove.

Martin Mayr, Managing Director of Cancom, told us: "Obviously it's not the best Christmas present we've ever had. However, we've known for quite a while that there would be an Apple Store here."

Indeed, another company that has long served the Brighton community, Solutions Inc, had been even more proactive: "Solutions Inc has always supported the notion of a retail Apple shop," Richard Furber, its Retail Operations Manager, told us. "We produced a film back in 2000 for Apple UK management highlighting the potential four years before the Regent Street store opened. We filmed it in Churchill Square, Brighton, right where they now have their own store."

Store opening 3

THE GOODS:In typical Apple Store style, all the kit is laid out on blonde wood tables

Surely, though, Apple opening its own store in Brighton is bound to have a detrimental effect on the businesses of Cancom and Solutions Inc? Not so, according to Solution Inc's Furber:

"The first week really affected the sales in our Brighton and the Hove stores, but we have already seen a great bounce back in week two. The Hove store has free parking on-site – if you are buying an iMac, Mac Pro or even a laptop, do you really want to carry it through the shopping centre back to your car? Our Brighton Store has seen a huge increase in its sales of third-party goods, and with Apple Store increasing the market share of Apple goods in the town then our sales of all digital lifestyle accessories will just get better and better."

Different league

Cancom is more guarded, however. "[While] we respect greatly their absolute professionalism in the way they developed their retail offering," Mayr says, "Apple's huge financial muscle means they are in different league to us when it comes to these kind of investments."

We were reassured to see both companies recognise the strength of the Apple retail experience. "Apple Stores are the new benchmark for retailing worldwide," says Furber, "a real blessing compared to the Dixon's shopping experience of the past."

Store opening 2

THE PUNTERS:Apple fans young and old flocked to the new store, which will offer free summer camps

Cancom's Mayr seems to speak for many of the high-street Apple specialist we speak to when he says: "For us, we wish they'd stayed at Regent Street and nowhere else."

Nevertheless, third-party stores have their own strengths. "Apple retail stores are good at what they do, but they fall a long way short of being a one-stop shop for everything. They don't sell servers or network systems, or support business users with visits to the client. The same is true for schools interested in Macs," says Furber, and Mayr is keen to stress the long-term relationships companies like his can develop with the community.

It's a sentiment that's echoed by Farpoint in Bath, MacFormat's own local Apple Premium Reseller. "Our offer to businesses includes free consultations, full IT support, replacement machines during repairs, on-site training and support packages tailored to suit each business's individual needs and budget," says Liz Hyde, its Marketing and PR Manager.

"We also have a rental service for businesses that allow more flexibility for our clients and the chance to try before you buy for new users. And you don't have to be a business to reap all of these benefits. We are also an Apple Authorised Service Provider and carry out repairs on-site here at Walcot Street. Our customers don't have to book their machines in first like you do at an Apple Store."

Store opening 1

THE RESULT:High street stores let you get hands-on with new kit

There's little doubt, though, that no matter how solid the service and broad the range of products offered by the traditional high-street Apple specialists, they just haven't got the magic touch that Apple seems to have when it opens a store itself.

Through a strange alchemy of stellar products, peerless stage management and just a soupçon of wide-eyed cultism, there's nothing quite like the opening of an Apple Store. See you at the next one?

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First published in MacFormat Issue 213

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