Apple Store story

Yesterday I went to the Apple Store in Oakbrook to buy an iMac. I had done my homework online, even had a machine configured, priced, and in my shopping cart, but didn’t want to wait for shipping. So off I go.

At the store, I was directed to a “Mac Specialist,” a skinny young man with tousled hair and wide, unblinking eyes. As a mature, middle-aged gentleman, I suppressed a laugh—not at the boy who was going to help me, but at the notion of a “Mac Specialist.”

(Aside: Ignoring accessories, like armbands, earphones, and modems, and “professional products,” like the Xserve that aren’t even out on display in a consumer-oriented store, Apple makes eight products:

That’s five flavors of Macintosh and three of iPod. Can it really be that Mac salesmen can’t tell you everything you need to know about an iPod? Doesn’t splitting your sales force into specialists—and letting your customers know about it—subvert the idea that Apple products “just work”? I suppose I should be grateful that my guide wasn’t introduced as a “Mac Desktop Specialist.”)

Anyway, I laid out for the young lad what I wanted: 17-inch iMac with 2 GB of memory and a 250 GB hard disk. After a moment of confusion wherein he thought I was looking for a 2 GHz machine—and was no doubt hoping to upsell me a 20-incher—my Specialist informed me that while the memory upgrade was no problem, I couldn’t get the 250 GB hard drive. A 160 GB drive is standard on the 17-inch iMac (which I knew), and the physical Apple Stores can’t swap hard drives.

“Really?” I said, my eyes drifting over to the sign above the Genius Bar, but still maintaining enough maturity to avoid pointing out its irony. “I thought I could come here and get whatever I could order online.”

“No,” said Napoleon Dynamite, “we can put in the memory, but not the hard drive.”

I was going to ask about Macs that are brought in for repairs. I’ve been in the back rooms of several Apple dealers and seen hardware manuals and Mac carcasses spread out over tables—isn’t there something like that in the room behind the registers? Isn’t there some budding Burrell Smith back there who can plug in a new hard disk? But I realized there was no point in asking. An Apple Store is not like the computer stores of 10-20 years ago. If you bring in a broken Mac, they probably just ship it out to Cupertino and call you when it comes back. I imagine the back room is just a place for the Geniuses and Specialists to go on break and discuss their piercings.

So I drove back home and completed my order online. I guess the physical Apple Stores are successful, but I’m not sure why. Lots of places—places that are closer to my house than Oakbrook is—sell stock Macintoshes you can take home the same day. And the online Apple Store will customize your Mac to your liking. So what is the physical Apple Store’s niche?

I suppose I’d know the answer if I were a Genius. Or even a Specialist.