op-ed

Dear Apple: Your Stores Suck

Apple Store
To enter an Apple store is to descend into a chipper circle of Hell.

My daughter shattered her iPhone’s  screen recently, an event that we’ve all come to accept rather than question why we’re carrying around panes of glass in our pockets, but that’s another story. The real miracle here is the number of consecutive days in which the girl did not shatter her telephone’s fragile screen.

Many avenues exist for repairing a broken cellphone, from self-service to third parties to, in the case of an iPhone, the Apple store. Daughter’s phone, daughter’s money, daughter’s choice: I drove her to our local mall, home of the Apple store.

Malls today feel a bit like anachronisms. This is the hub of ’80s shopping culture, after all. We’re too modern now for mullets and tall bangs yet the mall survives, or at least the basic concept does. During their heyday malls were essentially enclosed villages, climate-controlled main streets with a variety of stores to suit your shopping needs: bookstores, toy stores, shops offering cheese samples, tobacconists, shoes, clothes, jewelry, stereos, stationery, novelties, on and on. Need a black velvet KISS poster, a summer sausage, the new Erma Bombeck book, a Rubik’s Cube, and a “back massager”? All it took was one trip to the local mall. Heck, when we lived in the Chicago suburbs our local mall contained a magic shop.

Every shopping mall housed an arcade, too, at least until home consoles took over the gaming market. The arcade served as the mall’s daycare for bored kids and the occasional bored husband/father. The babysitter was paid in 25 cent increments rather than by the hour, but it was the same thing. Mom could hit the JC Penney and try on beige bras rated to withstand category 5 hurricanes courtesy of their 13 fasteners, and the kids could avoid the whole embarrassing episode by banging away on a pinball machine or steering Q*Bert around his blocky pyramid.

Back then the mall had everything: It was a shopping ecosystem. Then the internet came along, and like that Daniel Day-Lewis character it drank the mall’s milkshake. As retail shifted to an online enterprise, the variety of stores decreased: No more bookstores or record stores, for example. Who needs them when Amazon and streaming services are so convenient? The internet wasn’t the only pressure, though: Changing tastes killed the pipe shops and the sausage and cheese log retailers. Bain Capital — Mitt Romney’s merry band of corporate raiders — invaded KB Toys, stole their piggy bank, and bankrupted the mall world’s biggest toy retailer. The arcade was already long gone, but wi-fi enabled home gaming added an extra gob of spit to its grave.

The mall — the actual building — remains, but it’s two dimensional now, a mind-numbing repetition of stores selling only those items that don’t translate well to online shopping: clothes, jewelry, shoes, pretzels, and Cinnabon.

And, perversely, the Apple store. Apple: King of the connected world, home of the iCloud, iPhone, iTunes, iPad, and iMasturbate (coming in 2017, maybe sooner if Apple doesn’t keep thinking about baseball). Apple is all about the digital experience, yet there they sit in the anachronism that is the modern mall, wedged between Foot Locker and Victoria’s Secret.

It’s really not as strange as it seems. Contrary to their image, Apple’s genius isn’t innovation but branding. They are a company that takes an existing idea, polishes it up, tosses the letter “I” on the name, and marks up the price. Apple didn’t invent the cellphone, MP3 player, or cloud computing. They didn’t even invent the mouse or the graphical user interface — the two early innovations that set them apart from IBM’s early personal computers. None of which is a knock on Apple: Identifying a market niche, finding the bits and pieces that fill that niche, acquiring and branding them are perhaps more essential Silicon Valley skills than are developing software and hardware.

They’re brilliant, really. They’ve transferred a long con used by marketers of vice products (tobacco, alcohol, soft drinks) to peddle electronics: You aren’t buying an iPhone, you’re buying an identity, a lifestyle. To some people, that Apple logo is as meaningful as the Harley Davidson or sports team logo is to others.

As is true with most marketing, the younger you are the more likely you are to fall for the grift, and so I drove my iDaughter to the empty milkshake that is our local mall because only the skilled technicians at the Apple Genius Bar can really replace a broken screen, accept no substitutes.  We parked and made the journey past Abercrombie, American Eagle, Kay Jewelers, three pretzel places, and Lane Bryant and arrived at the iHoly of iHolies.

I knew I was in trouble immediately. Apple’s penchant for repackaging masquerading as innovation extends beyond their products and into their brick and mortar stores: sterile rooms crowded with tables sparsely covered with sample products: tablets, laptops, phones, and music players. Some accessories hang from wall hooks at the back of the store, but that’s it: no cash register, no counter, no easy to follow signage. Everything you think you know about shopping is either wrong or a lie when you step into the insular world of an Apple store.

We were greeted at the door by a green-shirted smile machine holding an iPad. “What brings you in today?” he asked.

“Broken phone,” I said, and my daughter held up her iAmshattered.

“Okay, great,” Mr. Green Shirt said, and he poked at his iPad. “Do you have an appointment?”

“A what? No, just point us to the service department.”

“Okay, no problem. Just wait in that line and somebody will be with you soon.” I followed his iGaze toward the back of the store where an amorphous blob of confused people holding broken electronics knotted up between two of the tables.

We stood toward the back of the blob, or “iLine,” and waited our turn to talk to the next green shirt holding an iPad.

“Hey, what brings you in today,” somebody finally chirped.

“Broken phone,” I said, and my daughter held up the iPatient again.

“Okay, I just need to get a little information from you,” the New Mr. Green Shirt said, and then he proceeded to ask me for everything but my penis girth. “Okay, we’ll text you in about 90 minutes when we’re ready for you,” he iSmiled.

“Don’t you need her phone?” I asked.

“About 90 minutes. We’ll text you.”

For the next hour and a half we tried to busy ourselves in the barren desert of the modern mall. We ate. We walked around. My daughter tried on clothes and I bitched about the lack of pinball machines, but any distraction would’ve been welcome.  Maybe an earthquake — nothing destructive, just enough to get a little action happening.

Eventually my non-Apple phone vibrated and we ran back to the Apple store. “Why are you walking so fast?” my daughter shouted from somewhere behind me.

“I don’t know how this works. They might give our spot to someone else if we aren’t there, like in a restaurant,” I said. We hit the door on a dead run. “We were paged,” I panted.

“Great,” Mr. Green Shirt said. “Go stand in that line and someone will be right with you.”

“But we were paged.”

“Someone will be right with you.”

We returned to the back of the amorphous blob and waited. Eventually the New Mr. Green Shirt found us at the back of the pack. “What brings you in today?” he said.

“We were paged. I guess they’re ready for us.”

“Okay, great. Follow me,” he said, and he led us to a huge table at the back of the store. “Have a seat and somebody will be right with you.”

Across the table from us sat a small young man with a large young beard, an iPhone, and an iPad, all of which seemed to work just fine with exception to the beard. He busily poked away at both devices, laughing with and talking to no one in the vicinity.

Everyone else at the table cradled broken electronics. They appeared much more forlorn than can be justified with iGrief. I suspect a few had been waiting at the big table since the iMac was launched back in ’98.  I’m not good in situations like this, and it shows. My daughter lectured me on the virtues of patience while I rhapsodized about the good old days of counters, registers, and clearly marked service departments.

Eventually we were greeted by Mr. Green Shirt 3, who like his colleagues carried an iPad. “Hey, what brings you in today?”

“Broken phone,” I said, and my daughter reflexively held up her phone. He took the device from her and studied it as if it held some diagnostic secret beyond “My glass is shattered.” “Okay, I just need to get a little information from you and then we can get going,” he said, and he retrieved a cloth tape measure from his pocket. I dropped my pants and he took the last piece of personal information that I hadn’t already volunteered, and then I digitally signed 725 electronic disclosures numbering 46,739 pages of single-spaced, 6-point text.

“Great, it should be ready in about 90 minutes. We’ll text you when it’s done,” he said. I began to cry. For the first time in my life I understood how Gilligan felt when he realized that he’d never get off that fucking island and Mary Ann was never going to put out.

There was no way to kill another 90 minutes in that godforsaken mall without a knife fight or a rap battle, so we left. We drove around. We stopped and bought shampoo. We dropped by our local record store and kicked around a used bookstore. We drove and drove and drove, burning up gas and time, eating up the clock, waiting for my phone to vibrate.

It never did. “Maybe we should go back and check,” I suggested.

“Why? They said they’d text you,” my daughter said.

“Sometimes processes break down. Let’s go check.” We drove back to the mall, parked, and walked past the Gap, Forever 21, Pac-Sun, and Hot Topic.

“Hey, what brings you in today” the iZombie at the door chirped.

“We want to check on my daughter’s phone,” I said.

“Oh, sure. Your name?” I monotoned my name and he poked at his iPad. “You’re all ready! Just go stand at that table over there,” he said, and he pointed slightly to the right of the amorphous mass. A group of people with sunken eyes and Cinnabon breath huddled around a small table. For a moment I thought I spotted Jimmy Hoffa.

We waited another ten minutes, then Mr. Green Shirt 4 emerged from a door, or “iPortal,” in the back of the store and handed my daughter her phone. “The screen was broken,” he said, quite proud of his diagnostic skills, and then he shoved his iPad in front of me and asked me to digitally sign…something. I didn’t read it. Nobody at the small table read the stupid thing. We all just wanted to go home. I probably volunteered myself into the white slave trade, but at least the nightmare was finally over. The next morning I received an email from the Apple store telling me that my daughter’s phone was ready for pickup.

So yes, Apple has completely re-engineered the brick and mortar shopping experience into something that is uniquely Apple. Unfortunately, they’ve done so by eliminating the only things that people in stores do well. We know how to find and pay at the register. We know how to form an orderly line at the counter. We know how to drop off an item for repair and pick it up at an agreed upon time.

But fuck that old-fashioned noise. This is better. This is iShop 2.0, where one must run a gauntlet of a half dozen employees in order to complete one simple transaction; where the act of dropping something off for repair and picking it up later is an incremental process requiring checkpoints, redundant conversations, and lines that are really just blobs of confused people standing in various areas and praying to the iGod that they’re in the right place.

I dread the day that Apple fixes the grocery business and supermarket aisles are reduced to well-lit tables bearing individual canned goods, and one has to make an appointment with a Grocery Genius in order to pick up a can of corn. Maybe by then Amazon will be able to drone me some bananas.

One final note: Can we please return a pinball machine or two to some forgotten corner of the shopping mall? I’m old, and I feel like an asshole standing in the middle of Urban Outfitters while my daughter tries on shorts. Thanks.

 

Categories: op-ed

3 replies »

  1. Your biggest mistake was having a ‘new’ device. I brought in a pre-intel Mac Pro G5 tower and the whole store lit up with an energy reserved for fight or flight moments. “My god” they all whispered, shoppers included. The excitement and fear was palpable. My ‘genius’ (blue shirts for us) had to actually open a secret cabinet drawer behind the – get you all the way in to the store to see every little thing that you don’t need but that we want you to see – back counter to find a cable [crowd backs up two feet with rictus of terror written over their faces, clutching their ‘iDon’tneednostinkincable’ devices] to power up the old beast.

    I simply stomped on all the iQuestions by stating my first Mac was a Macintosh SE circa 1989 and that the first time I cranked up one of their products was 1986, two years after ‘1984’ hit the ad slots in a pre-streaming world, hell when cable was still fresh and beta was thought to still have a chance. I think it shuts them up because I shouldn’t be alive anymore, just a stuffed exhibit somewhere iSafe.

    Here in Pittsburgh we don’t have to go into a mall for our iExperience, just a pretty pretty street in Shadyside where one of the top ten Thai restaurants in the U.S. vies for one’s Apple money on a daily basis, fair fight so far.

    Disclaimer: Don’t get me wrong, I’m a 30 year tried and true Mac and only Mac for work kind of guy, who however, stays away from the stores mostly because ‘have you fucking seen the new tower?????’ as I move one trepid step at a time forward to touch the Monolith with the awe of Moon Watcher……..

    Like

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