Because Microsoft has a monopoly on operating system software, Apple has to work hard to explain and demonstrate its products, and persuade people to buy something different. Apple has never had much luck selling its Macintosh computers through computer or electronics chains. "Shopping for a Mac is probably one of the most miserable shopping experiences around," said Rodney Lain, a Twin Cities resident who writes for Apple-related news Web sites and works part time selling Macs for at a St. Louis Park computer store. "If you've ever been into a CompUSA or Circuit City of Best Buy when they had Macs, you have the salespeople who don't have a clue about Macs, or the salespeople who don't care about Macs."
Apple believes it can sell Apples better than anyone, and that's the idea behind the stores. The 6,000 square feet stores feature bright white walls, bleached wood floors and computers on pedestals. Shoppers can choose from 35 computers, hundreds of software titles, and electronics, such as digital cameras. There's a counter called a "Genius Bar" where difficult questions can be asked and answered.
Apple says the Twin Cities is already one of its top markets, rating fifth in the number of people using the Mac operating system. Macs are the computers of choice for the graphic arts and publishing industries, which have a strong presence here.
Apple's Ron Johnson says the Mall of America will help it reach more than just the Twin Cities shoppers. "It is a really fun place. It's always busy. It has a lot of people from the Twin Cities, but it also has a lot of people from out of town," he said.
Apple won't say how much it's spending to open its stores, but says it's a "significant investment." It might be considered a risky strategy, given the overall slump in personal computer sales and general economic slowdown. But so far, the stores seem to be doing well. Equity analyst Charles Wolfe of Needham and Company says stores in Virginia and southern California have been swamped. "The store traffic in the two stores open since May have averaged over 10,000 visitors per week, and that's simply an astonishing number in terms of store traffic. But we don't have any data on whether Apple is attracting new users to the platform. That is a key measure of the success of these stores."
Apple predicts its stores will turn a profit next year. But that can't be considered a sure thing. Retail stores have not worked as well as hoped for one major computer seller; Gateway has closed a handful of its "Gateway Country" stores. The number-one PC company, Dell, sells its machines on the Web and over the phone.
Apple's newest store opens this weekend at the Mall of America. Next up: Chicago, Boston, and Palo Alto.