Sunday, December 9, 2007
Apple has the amazing ability to turn the mundane—opening a new branch of a store in this case—into an event.
Apple Store opening, 14th Street, New York
Apple has the amazing ability to turn the mundane—opening a new branch of a store in this case—into an event. I experienced this first hand with the opening of the 5th Avenue store in New York over a year ago. That gave me a few expectations heading into yesterday's grand opening of their new store on 14th street on the far West Side. But I thought there might be a number of key differences this time around that might thin the crowds somewhat.
For starters, the new store is now the third in Manhattan; the other two appear to be constantly packed (although I haven't visited the 24 hour one at four in the morning), so opening a third seems to be a no-brainer. Apple chose to put it in an area called the Meatpacking district (formerly home to slaughterhouses). This is an area that has recently become home to trendy clubs and restaurants, with a smattering of galleries and upscale boutiques.
So there was nothing like the first store's flagship status, nor the second's fantastic location and architectural distinction. There was simply no way that the third store was worth the same sort of attention. The timing of its opening wasn't brilliant, either, it being a Friday evening with the holidays closing in. Freezing temperatures and an afternoon dusting of snow should have intimidated people. I was all set for a far shorter line than the one I encountered at the 5th Avenue store opening. Man, was I ever mistaken.
I arrived a bit before 5pm, and the line was already huge. It looped around barricades down 14th Street at the store's entrance, turned north, and then headed halfway down the block on 15th street. I settled in at the end of the line, and people continued to stream in behind me. Eventually, Paul Kim of Noodlesoft joined me in line and held my place as I searched for its end. I caught sight of New Jersey before I finally came across the end of the line, which was now somewhere near where 14th ran into the West Side Highway. In between, police were busy trying to make sure cars could enter one of the few gas stations in Manhattan without running someone over; the owner appeared to be busy thanking them personally.
Aside from the area near the gas station, the back end of the line was largely self-organized and operated smoothly without any police or security involvement. Unfortunately, it all went to hell right near the store entrance, which had the largest concentration of security and police anywhere. Nobody bothered to put up barricades to separate the line from the intersection, and people simply piled in while the police and security announced that cutters were the other's responsibility.
Last opening, I published a picture of the lone line cutter I saw and was accused of racism; this time around, I'm pleased to report that the cutters belonged to nearly every ethnicity available. Pretty much the entire left third of the line in this photo has cut, and that included a woman who appeared to be a retiree. Probably the worst aspect of the cutters is that, after they squeezed into place, you were stuck standing next to someone who had just seriously pissed you off for an hour. The experience of waiting in these lines is largely based on who you are waiting with, especially when it's so cold that you're losing the feeling in your fingers. Therefore, standing next to someone you detest doesn't help matters.
Fortunately, my other neighbors in line (including Paul) had been excellent companions. When asked, most of them claimed they were whiling through several hours in the cold for the free stuff but—amazingly—they were mostly looking for t-shirts for other people. It was enough to raise my general opinion of humanity. A social worker that helps recovering addicts was there to nab one for her husband. Another, Melinda, was there because a friend, "the sortof close friend that you can't say no to," as she put it, had asked her to grab one. She'd dragged along a coworker in what was the first (and, quite possibly, the last) time they had decided to socialize outside the office.
I didn't have the heart to tell any of them that i suspected we were probably too far back in line to grab one (in part because I would have hated being wrong). Neither did a few of the other neighbors that had enough Apple Store experience to know as well. One man, an army brat who was from too many places to count, had been at 5th Ave. opening and iPhone day. Another couple, whose jobs had dragged them around the country, had hit opening days at local stores in about four different cities.
They made up a nice group to chat with as the line snaked towards the front of the store, where the cutters piled in and it became apparent that the line made a large loop down 14th St. Paul Kim reasonably decided that it was time for dinner, and the social worker started weighing the merits of grabbing a t-shirt on eBay. I started contemplating whether seeing the inside of the store in detail was really essential to this report.
Fortunately, at this point, conversation drifted in a way that brought up the fact that the multi-opening couple (the female half of which was warning the rest of us against succumbing to weakness and leaving) were scientists. One was now an administrator in the CUNY system, and we chatted a bit about alternate career paths for scientists. The other worked in the American Museum of Natural History on the phylogeny of the carnivores—we discussed whether I could stop by and see the working side of the museum.
Let that sink in for a second: I'm arranging possible science content for Ars while waiting in line at the Apple Store opening. I'm sure there's a message there somewhere, but what it is (beyond "don't send the Science Editor to cover Apple events") hasn't become clear to me yet.
That, plus the fact that my digits had gone numb, helped the remainder of the wait go quickly. Suddenly, we were rushing into the store. The women on my left, who had earlier convinced a pizza delivery guy to skip the actual delivery and sell it to them, were especially energetic. Unfortunately, they lost their footing during the rush, resulting in a multibody pile up. T-shirts were in fact gone, but Apple was still handing out posters in tubes with prize tokens inside, most of them $10 iTunes gift cards. This being one of those nights, I wound up with the iTunes card and a poster that had been ripped and crumpled a bit while being put in the tube. I'm very happy to report, though, that Melinda won an iPod Shuffle for her troubles.
While he was still around, Paul had indicated that the story would need a celebrity sighting. As time passed without one, he began suggesting that I could make one up; nobody would be able to say for sure that I was lying. I'm happy to report that Steven Colbert was in the store, and I have photos (above) to demonstrate it. Celebrity sighting—tick. Had I not been getting really hungry, I might have stopped and argued in favor of bears for a bit, but I decided not to interrupt his visit.
The store itself is nothing all that exceptional. It's got a corner location and large windows on the walls facing the street, giving it a much brighter, airier feel than the other two New York locations. Still, the building isn't architecturally distinguished, and there wasn't a lot Apple could do about that without replacing it. The interior has the same clean, uncluttered look of the rest of the stores.
The now-mandatory glass spiral staircase was impressive at two stories, but nothing out of the ordinary in Apple Store terms. If anything, it looks like Apple, compelled by its gradually rising market share, might have devoted a bit more space to computers in this store—there were two floors of computers to one devoted to iPods, and that's without any towers in sight. The new professional tutoring section was closed for the night, but indicated with signs. Possibly the most notable thing about the store, however, is how little I can find to say about it.
The only other thing worth mentioning is the location. The neighborhood is mostly notable for its nightlife, and it seems pretty unlikely that clubgoers are going to mean big business for an electronics store that closes at midnight. There are some galleries and clothing shops in the immediate area, too, but they appeared likely to be catering to an exclusive and small clientele. In short, it doesn't look like the store has been placed in a location with a pre-existing, Apple-oriented shopping audience in place.
So, the store is going to have to pull shoppers in on its own merits. Right now, nearly any retail location in New York will be doing well thanks to the incredibly weak dollar. Still, there are no other tourist attractions nearby, so I expect that the out-of-country shopping crowd will mostly give this branch a miss. That is a disappointment, since I was hoping it might reduce the crowds at the 5th Avenue location, which is easiest for me to reach.
The last factor that argues against a large audience for the new location is the fact that it's a long walk west from most of the subway lines, something that was driven home as I slogged across town to Union Square to catch the train that would get me closest to my apartment. On the platform, I saw someone walking my way carrying one of the boxes that had the elusive t-shirts, and I half-contemplated pleading with him on behalf of the social worker (I had her husband's phone number from when I loaned her my cell phone to call him). At that moment, I was distracted by a rat scurrying past on the tracks below; my attention lingered as it scampered past a $10 iTunes gift card that someone else had decided wasn't worth the effort and thrown onto the tracks. By the time I looked back up, the t-shirt and its new owner were gone.
Posted by SANJIDA AFROJ at 1:36 PM