Apple Store Experience

The Kelly Letter owned shares of Apple stock before I owned an Apple computer. Our thesis was that the internet has unleashed the freedom to work on any computer and that such freedom would lead more people to choose the elegance and power of Apple’s products. My research said so and we followed the conclusion in the portfolio, but I didn’t immediately follow it in my own life. My office continued using PCs and I personally continued using a PC notebook.

That all just changed when I bought a MacBook Pro 17-inch at the Apple Store in Ginza, Tokyo. Most new Mac users rave about the solidity of the product, the no-bloatware out-of-box experience, and the sheer beauty of Apple’s technology. What I want to focus on today, however, is Apple’s superb retail experience.

I’ve always dreaded the PC upgrade cycle. It sucks. A trip to the typical electronics retailer in either the U.S. or Japan involves looking over dozens of machines adorned with stickers and barely clinging to flimsy metal shelves. The staff are usually bored out of their minds and act as if they’re doing you a favor to respond to a call for help. Any questions you ask are met with blank stares followed by reading the product box for the answer. That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, you’ll get a snide comment that it doesn’t matter or you should already know the answer. There’s usually loud, annoying music overhead, too. I can’t get out of the places fast enough.

At the Apple Store, a focused family of products sits proudly atop gorgeous display tables that don’t threaten to topple when you touch the machines. Using the machines is encouraged, too, because there’s no risk of them blowing up in customer faces or freezing or running through a kaleidoscope of error messages, as happens routinely in PC shops. To be fair to the PCs, many of the error messages aren’t their faults but, rather, the fault of the uninspired staff who never took the time to set them up for public display. In the Apple Store, all the machines are online, with correct times displayed, and fully functional. Want to check email? Do it. Want to open a document? Go ahead. Change settings to see if you can quickly set up a good work environment? Have at it.

Such a store shows a great deal of confidence in the products, which gives me confidence as a buyer. I’m not being rushed out the door with a flimsy piece of paper saying I have tech support for a year if I need it — just call this number in India, but don’t under any circumstances bother us here — but am instead given all the time and freedom to arrive at about the only conclusion anybody can: I want one.

On my first visit, I was still thinking about the big switch from 20+ years of PC history and how much of an impact it would have on my work. Would it take one week, three weeks, two months to get up and running in a whole new way? I wasn’t sure. So the reconnaissance mission came first. Right off the street, I was greeted by the pretty setting and settled in to exploring the MacBook Pros. A staff member, a friendly young woman sharp as a tack, asked if I needed any help.

Here’s a quick aside that might not be immediately obvious to those who’ve never lived in a foreign country. There’s an art to speaking to foreigners. On the one hand, you don’t want to offend their language abilities by assuming they don’t speak the local tongue. On the other, you don’t want to alienate them by proceeding in a language they can’t follow. Over here, I’m the foreigner, and appreciate people who ask me if I speak Japanese and then proceed normally when they find out I do. What I don’t appreciate but what is unfortunately the norm, is that even after I say I speak Japanese and demonstrate it in the following conversation, I’m still treated differently, in an air of doubt or as a child.

On this regionally unique point, Apple scored in the top category. Every staff member I dealt with spoke to me politely and informatively, and in precisely the same way they spoke to the store’s Japanese customers. Yet, they understood my desire to get a Mac with a U.S. keyboard, and told me that they could have it ready for me in no time. That’s right, with no special shipping from the U.S., the Ginza store could install a U.S. keyboard on whatever machine I chose. What great service.

I ran through a list of questions, such as how to right-click, whether I could scroll with the trackpad, the ability to use certain investment services to which I subscribe, and so on. Yuuki, the sharp-as-a-tack woman I mentioned above, answered every question kindly and demonstrated how I could use the Mac my way. Something else I appreciated was the way she never insulted the way I was working on the PC. Her goal was not to degrade PCs or Windows in any way, but just to show me what the Mac could do and let it speak for itself. There’s that confidence again.

By the time I left, I was already sure I’d be buying a Mac and went back to the office to start getting ready for the big switch. A week later, I was back in Ginza after making an appointment for personal shopping. Apple offers a private guide to you in choosing what it is you want to buy and then seeing you through the transaction. How’s that for service? They call it Personal Shopping. In typical electronics shops, I never see the same person twice. The attitude is always, “yes, he bought it, now get him out the door fast!”

Unfortunately, the day that worked best for me was Yuuki’s day off, but she set me up in the hands of her colleague, Takuya, whom she assured me was every bit as knowledgeable and friendly. Takuya was waiting at the appointed time, had the Mac I ordered ready to go, and walked me through several demonstrations. He also offered ahead of time to transfer all of my data from my old PC to the Mac for me, but I said I wanted to do it myself as a way to get acquainted with the new machine. He liked that idea.

He never pressured me to buy more. He showed me all four levels of the store so I’d know where I could get one-on-one technical support at the Genius Bar (again, reservations available online with a click, just like the Personal Shopping), where to see free how-to presentations in the theater, and where to buy accessories and software. We rode a cool glass elevator that enabled us to see each floor as we rode up and down, and he pointed out that Steve Jobs himself had requested that the stainless steel hand rail in the elevator be changed so that the mill lines of the steel went around the tube instead of along its length. “We care about details,” Takuya said.

He asked if I wanted iWork software to help with the tasks I said I do at work, and showed me how it would help me. I said sure. He asked if I wanted to try a year of Mobile Me at a discount, and showed me its benefits. I said sure. He asked if I wanted some amazing little Bose speakers, and played heart-shaking music on them. I said no thanks, but made a mental note to get them later.

When my tally was finished, he added up the retail prices and then reduced each of them in front of me to get me a greater than 10% discount. Mind you, this was after I’d agreed to buy, so it was just a smart form of customer service. What a way to leave me even happier. They didn’t entice me with lowball prices. They sold me on quality products, and then offered me savings as a form of thanks for the business. Very classy.

They put my new Mac in its slim box into a cool Apple bag with straps for my shoulders in case I wanted to carry it like a backpack. Takuya walked me to the door and wished me well, reminding me that I could call, email, or stop by any time.

When I got back to the office, I opened the box to see a beautifully packaged machine, almost beaming with pride at its own design and eager to show me what it could do. I put it on my desk, turned it on, and in
very little time had moved my work over to the Mac.

Nothing popped up in my face. No virus software I don’t need. No internet service offers. No confirm this, OK that, enable this, disable that, double-check this setting, track down that driver, find old application disks, or dust off the printer software. The machine booted up so quickly I thought it was broken at first. Nope. It really comes up in an eyeblink. Shuts down as fast, too, although just closing it works fine. Hours later, I pushed back my chair and looked at the sleek aluminum shape on the desk in a confident silence without fans or beeps, and joined other converts in wondering what had taken me so long.

You know what else I wondered? What new epiphanies awaited me at the Apple Store. What other little miracles of technology whispered my name? What excuse could I find to visit my new friends in Ginza, and buy something else from them?

As an investor, I can’t think of a better result of fine retailing. The customer dying to come back is about as much as we can hope for.

As a customer, I’m just dying to go back. In fact, I will. Tomorrow.

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