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Illuminations from the throne

A visit to the Apple Store.

An Apple store.
Photo Credit: Laurenz Heymann

Steve Jobs envisioned a unique retail experience for his consumers since Macs are too cool to be sold in your garden variety, high street electronics outlet. Something extra special was required. The Apple Store.

I was impressed the first time I visited one in Regent Street but they're dangerous places for casual browsing unless you've got plenty of money to spend. Stepping over the threshold would instantly ignite the urge to whip out my credit card so I decided they were best avoided if I wasn't seriously considering a purchase.

Fast forward several years and I believe my recent visit to the Hackescher Markt store in Berlin was the first time I went into one actually intending to buy something. All I wanted was a SuperDrive which I know isn’t one of the cooler things you'll find in there so let me explain.

Apple had good reasons for removing the internal CD drive from their Macs. No one uses them to install software anymore, you just download it from the App Store. Certainly no one buys music CDs anymore. That’s just archaic, like hunting woolly mammoths.

Well, when Spotify shuts down, Deezer gives up the ghost and Apple Music simply changes its mind; when continuous, climate change induced heatwaves melt entire vinyl collections into visual rather than audio artworks, it’s the guys who’ve stuck with the classic compact disc who’ll have the last laugh.

I don’t care if it’s primitive, I’m one of those guys and we need CD drives if we want to copy music onto an iPhone. Apple grudgingly acknowledges our existence, for now, and produces the SuperDrive.

Now you’re wondering why I didn’t just order it on the website. Even antiquated music consumers know you can buy stuff online... don't they?

Hackescher Markt is an interesting little corner of Berlin. As well as the charming Hof, there's Cafe Cinema, famous for its comically rude proprietors, some unique (or dubious, depending on your point of view) street art, several exclusive, high end fashion retailers and a Whisky & Cigars shop in Sophienstraße.

Take a guess: at this point would you say I’m a whisky drinker or a cigar smoker? The answer is not both.

A few years ago, I worked round the corner in Rosenthaler Straße. From time to time, I’d pop into Whisky & Cigars during my lunch break, partake in a couple of slugs before returning to work for some of the most productive afternoons I can remember.

During the last few months I was there, practically every other building on our side of the street was mercilessly demolished. While we did our best to concentrate, the destruction next door was so savage, structural engineers would come in to check they weren’t taking us with them. There were times when I feared my colleague sitting opposite would simply disappear through a fresh hole in the wall. But we all survived and relocated to a bigger office in Kreuzberg.

Not long ago, realising my whisky supply would soon be cause for concern, I headed into Hackescher Markt for the first time since the street had been rebuilt. Standing there, radiating all the perfect shininess you’d expect, was a brand new Apple Store. How wonderfully convenient! I could just go in and buy the SuperDrive I needed right there and then.

The layout inside was exactly how I remembered it. I ignored the toys, enticingly spread out across the tables, and headed directly to the cubby holes where the accessories were displayed. Lots of interesting stuff there, but no SuperDrives. I’d have to ask someone.

But who? Looking around, I figured out the colour code: black t-shirts meant security, blue t-shirts meant sales. In an Apple store you don’t just choose something from a shelf and take it to a checkout. You need to talk to a sales assistant but, as daft this sounds, it wasn’t obvious how to do that. Any blue t-shirt not already busy with a customer looked to be deeply engaged with mysterious tasks on their laptops. I hovered close to a group of three who were talking intently to each other, hoping one would notice me and ask if they could help. That didn’t happen. Then a lady, sitting at a table with her laptop, waved me over.

“Are you waiting to talk to someone?”

“Yes, thank you. I’m looking for a...”

“You should go stand over there.”

“Er, okay... but... ”

“Yes, over there”, she said, giving me a lovely smile before turning back to her laptop.

On my way to the corner she’d indicated, I realised I wasn’t the only loser who was unaware of the protocol for purchasing something in an Apple Store. Another customer tried to intercept a blue t-shirt as he hurried past.

“Excuse me, are you available?”

“I’m not, sorry. But very quickly, what is it you want help with?”

“I’m thinking about buying an iPhone and I have some questions.”

“Ok. I can’t help you at the moment I’m afraid, but I’ll make an appointment for you.”

So this guy had gone into a shop to buy something and to do that, he needed to make an appointment.

I finally managed to get someone’s attention long enough to ask if he was free.

“Sorry no. But very quickly, what help do you need?”

“I’m looking for a SuperDrive.”

Puzzlement: “Sorry, a what?”

“Erm, I think it's called a SuperDrive.”

Deeper puzzlement: “What’s that?”

Now I was puzzled. “It’s Apple’s external CD drive.”

The puzzled look evaporated from his face as he realised he was talking to someone clearly in the wrong place: “Oh I'm sorry. I don’t think we sell anything like that.”

For the love of... Biting my tongue, I showed him the SuperDrive on apple.com and demonstrated how I could have ordered it earlier and picked it up right now, in this very store.

“Ok. I’ll make an appointment for you.”

“How long will I have to wait?”

“About half an hour.”

I can see why you might need an appointment to discuss buying an iPhone. It’s a significant purchase, chances are you'll be taking up a lot of someone's time. But I knew exactly what I wanted, a relatively small item he just had to grab for me, before taking my money. No questions necessary. For that I'd have to wait half an hour. And I couldn’t be sure if whoever came to help me would even know what a SuperDrive was.

I briefly considered ordering it on the website for an in store pick up. I was curious to see if it took less than 30 minutes but that experiment could wait.

“Thanks. I’ll order it online.”

I left the Apple Store and, allowing myself no further distractions, went directly to Whisky & Cigars. It was a comfort to know in advance that whoever I would be speaking to in there would know what Highland Park was. I wonder if my Apple guy decided he should go and check out the stockroom. I can picture him staring around, wide-eyed thinking, Wooaaah, look at all this stuff. I thought we only sold iPhones.

So, if you’re listening up there Steve, your attempt to create a unique retail experience was certainly successful.

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