I arrived at the Mall of America in Bloomington at 4:00am and believe it or not, that wasn't early enough to be the first. A group from Minnesota's Iron Range arrived at 2:00am and Mall Security kicked them out of the building. I noticed the guards opening the doors at 5:40 and was the first to arrive at the brand new Apple store. A mall cleaning crew dusted and worked on the windows as the gang from the Iron Range joined the party.
Joel Anderson is a technology coordinator for the Hibbing School district. He's been a Mac person since the Apple IIe and Mac Plus and brought along his G4 Titanium PowerBook. "I just wanted to be part of it," Joel said. And be part of it, he was. Part of my mission was to supply photos and information about the Grand Opening to MacCentral.com. An hour before the store opened, we hooked into the store's AirPort network and transmitted photographs to MacCentral Editor Jim Dalrymple. (You can see our story and some of my photos at www.maccentral.com.) The experience proved to me that I need a PowerBook and an AirPort card in a way that no in-store demo could!
As the morning went on, more bleery-eyed people joined the line. Jace Tramontin made the trip with Joel and said about the store concept, "For what they're trying to do -- get (the Mac) in people's faces -- it's great." Like a many at the head end of the line, Jace came to look and learn. Erik Engberg added that "It's a great idea that Apple provides a solution, rather than 'here's a box. Go do something with it.'"
Ron Johnson, Senior Vice President of Apple Retail put it this way. "The word computer isn't ever in the store. It's photos. Movies." Johnson told me that opening in the Twin Cities made a lot of sense. "It's historically a great Mac market and a publishing hotbed." He added that the Mall of America store was a perfect location. "200,000 people will be in the mall today. Probably 10,000 of them are avid Mac users." Johnson said that leaves 190,000 potential new customers who can be exposed to Mac solutions. What he didn't say is that nearly 40 percent of Mall of America customers come from outside a 150 mile radius. The lure of 500+ stores and entertainment gives the Apple Store more reach than it would have in any other mall in Minnesota.
Despite the soft economy, Johnson is upbeat about the store. "Apple is well financed," he said. "The best companies invest. Recessions always end. This is a great time for Apple." This store is set up just like the other Apple stores, but has about double the number of software titles. You'll find lots of games and education titles, as well as professional graphics applications, including Adobe Illustrator, Final Cut Pro and After Effects. I noticed Amorphium on the shelves, but didn't see any of the "pro-level" general purpose 3d software -- no Lightwave, Universe or Cinema 4D -- or After Effects plug-ins. While they don't have everything, Johnson said the wider selection is a test, sparked after each previous store had sold 1,000 titles in its first weekend.
As the 9 o'clock hour drew closer, Apple Senior PR Director Mark McClellan estimated that 450 people were waiting in line to get into the store... the crowd would soon swell to a thousand or more, according to another Apple exec. The team of about 35 Apple employees gathered in the rear of the store for a team meeting. From the outside, we could hear some applause and cheers. Then, the song "We are Family" boomed as the employees moved to the front of the store. The door lifted as everyone on both sides applauded and cheered.
Security guards let customers into the store in groups, but you could stay as long as you like. People flocked to their favorite tools... from iMacs to Titanium G4s, from Nikon digital still cameras to Canon GL1 digital video, everything was fired up and ready to go. Apple employees helped people make movies and even burn their test projects onto CDs. One employee demonstrated how, on OSX, it's just like saving a file to a hard drive. No Toast required.
In the back of the store, you'll find the Genius Bar. A place where Mac experts will answer even your toughest question. If they can't, they'll go on line or make a call to find the answer. I threw them a couple of questions about RAM... about the difference between 2-2-2 or 3-2-2... and it didn't phase them much. They came up with the answer I wanted in short order, and seemed interested in helping me.
Assistant Store Manager Kym Wester says "finding the best solutions" is what the store is all about and the "bottom line" will follow. "Every customer has to have a really good experience in the store, so they'll come back again. Like the dozen or so full-time employees Kym says she's been a Mac fan for a long time. "Working with Apple is an honor," she says. Apple's Johnson says employees are very carefully selected. Many have hobbies -- like digital video or digital photography -- that connect with Apple's "digital hub" concept. Not only that, he says "they have to be people who want to serve."
By mid-morning, the activity inside the store was frenetic. Music boomed, people watched live demonstrations of OSX in the theater area, and people everywhere were playing and experimenting on the machines. As people left the store, employees handed out tee shirts packed in clear plastic tubes. And the line of people waiting to get in was still quite long.
Dean Tollefsrud and Lynne Mortinson stood in line for about 40 minutes and had a long way to go. They drove up from Rochester Minnesota in a powder blue '47 Plymouth. He wore an Apple Hockey Jersey, saying the special shirts were apparently created for Canadian Apple retailers for the OSX roll-out. Dean said he connected with the seller through ebay and is happy to wear it. He's interested in learning about the dual 800 and Apple Cinema displays. His appreciation for Apple comes down to one concept. "It's just simple. Simple is best and that's what Apple does." Lynne piped in that "Apple's just such a friendly company." Dean was disappointed when I told him they didn't have a dual 800 on the floor and the store employee I asked couldn't give me a shipping date. Still, he was smiling broadly when he finally got inside.
Clearly, most of the people who made the effort to be part of opening day were Mac heads. We're the die-hards who drive hundreds of miles and already "think different." Educators. Designers. Game players and Mac geeks. For me, being part of the grand opening was important on several levels. Being able to hold Apple products in my hands before I buy is something I can't get from the internet stores where I do most of my Mac shopping. I also enjoyed some fun conversations on all-things Mac, This is one place where "Apple-speak" not a foreign language. I also learned that the store includes an Apple Service Center on-site. Something I might need down the road.
Opening Day was a ton of fun for a lot of Mac people. I watched them line up to buy Mac software and cart away everything from G4 towers to iBooks, Cinema Displays and software. I had enough hands-on experience to firm up my own purchasing decisions. The employees too had it easy, because we shared a common understanding and common language. All that changes when the "Grand Opening buzz" wears off and the Apple Store becomes just another one of hundreds of stores, competing for attention and dollars. The window washers will be back tomorrow morning, but crowds won't be gathering hours before the doors open.
Apple knows that its long-term success will depend in large part on the 95% of the people who use Windows machines or nothing at all. When those people come to the Mall for the Camp Snoopy Amusement Park or for the shopping, the company is betting they'll be hooked by the simple elegence of the message, the machines and the store. And that eventually, they'll be the ones standing in line for Apple's "next" big thing.
All photos on this page are copyright 2001 Jon Okerstrom. Reproduction without written permission is forbidden.