Getting a Mac on the UK high street used to be tricky.
A handful of Mac resellers lurked in forgotten corners of cities, and only a scant few, such as Square's New Oxford Street store, were located sensibly and stood out.
The problem was also that Mac resellers were rarely geared towards newcomers to the Mac platform. You had to know where to go and who to speak to. A trenchcoat and a funny handshake were useful tools.
Recently, though, things have changed. November 2004 saw Apple's flagship Regent Street store open to wide acclaim, beginning Apple's measured rollout of its own stores throughout the UK. Keeping pace, APRs (Apple Premium Resellers – Mac- dedicated retail outlets meeting Apple's exacting standards) started plugging location holes, opening stores on high streets and in shopping centres lacking Apple itself.
Joining well-known Apple high-street reseller John Lewis, Marks & Spencer recently started selling Macs via its online store and within its larger branches. More surprisingly, Argos dedicates an entire page of its latest catalogue to Apple kit (beyond iPods). This means that there's now an Apple reseller in almost every reasonably-sized British town.
The halo effect
We quizzed several APRs and long-time Apple reseller John Lewis about what's driving this change, and all cited the iPod's meteoric rise, along with the relative successes of the iMac and iPhone.
"However, 'resurgence' is not the word I'd use, as this implies the change just started, when it's been increasing over the past three years," argues Darren King, MD of Square Group. King suggests Apple's strong performance in education, sending the right message to students, teachers and parents alike, has altered the perception of Apple as a brand, moving it beyond something purely for the print, creative and video markets.
Historically, Mark Hotter of MacWarehouse says Mac customers knew what they wanted, had done the research, and were willing to pay for quality. "But while that customer still exists, we're increasingly seeing newcomers to the Mac," Mike Khalfey, Buyer: Information Technology at John Lewis concurs.
His organisation recognised Apple's strengths 15 years ago and has stocked Macs ever since, but recent years have seen marked changes, most notably a major shift towards laptops, with MacBooks proving particularly successful.
With Apple resellers no longer solely preaching to the converted, and renewed consumer interest in the platform, these companies suddenly find themselves trying to grab market share whilst also being mindful of expansionist competition.
Hotter notes how PC World – often scorned by Mac users for its seeming neglect of Mac kit – now offers dedicated Apple 'shop in shops', manned by Apple staff, and backed by an online arm of MacWarehouse.
Hotter considers Apple's current market share tiny, and reckons "you can never have too much of a good thing". But will the likes of Argos and an aggressive Apple impact negatively on existing resellers, rather than newcomers exploring all options equally?
Cloak and dagger
Most resellers consider Argos re-entering the Mac market a good thing. Hotter notes: "As Macs appear in more generic retailers, the Mac is brought to a wider audience, embedding it in the consciousness of the shopper as a commodity product rather than a niche one." Also, the service Argos offers is fiercely basic.
"Assistants sell Macs one minute and washing machines the next," says Howard Cole, MD of Albion. "Because of this, APRs dedicated to Apple with extensively trained staff will always offer a better proposition." Even John Lewis recognises the shortcomings of a box- shifting mentality, with Khalfey noting: "Retailers have recognised the opportunity in this market, and so we expect to see more competitors.
But the technical world is becoming increasingly complex, and so service and value are at the forefront of consumers' minds. Whatever the competitive landscape, John Lewis will offer unrivalled customer service."
For APRs, it's Apple, rather than Argos that, causes most concern with its rumbling expansionist store policy and multichannel strategy that ultimately puts Apple in competition with its own partners.
"Apple's also cloak and dagger about where it plans to open stores," says King, although he admits there's some openness when APRs enquire about locations they themselves are considering. "However, Apple goes where it likes, irrespective of whether there's an APR there or not."
Square Group was the first APR to directly compete with an Apple Retail Store, with its New Oxford Street premises suddenly being overshadowed by Apple's nearby Regent Street store. "Our retail turnover fell off a cliff," says King. "It peaked the month Apple's store opened, due to an overflow of visitors that couldn't get into that store, but halved the next month and has remained static since."
Strange, perhaps, to think Apple could be the biggest threat to Apple high-street presence. But despite Apple's stores clearly enhancing the brand, its tendency to aggressively discount makes it hard for APRs to compete, and King notes that, "Apple always gets stock before everyone else," although he concedes that APRs do come a close second.
Clearly, existing APRs intent on survival can't just wait for Apple to steamroller their operations, and those we spoke to are making moves to compensate for a potential loss of retail sales.
King notes that Square's B2B business has grown phenomenally, and Apple's nearby store made Square raise its game, specialise and offer products and services unavailable from Apple itself.
He concedes that end users may find things confusing, not fully understanding the difference between an APR and Apple's own stores, or considering an APR's offering somehow inferior to the 'real thing'. But by APRs ensuring their services are of a high quality, such problems should disappear over time.
Lee Ford, Sales Director of Western Computer Limited, has been gearing for the recent opening of the Bristol Apple Store (opened 25 September). Before it opened he said: "Overall, I think the message to consumers is a positive one – Apple is opening stores in high footfall locations, and this will secure further interest in its product range and help develop more Apple users.
"Competition is always healthy and we'll have to ensure we're offering our customers a high level of service to retain them. That said, I'm sure we'll see a drop in retail sales when Apple's store opens."
To counter this new Apple Store, Western aims to offer an experience beyond Apple's. Ford talks about providing a range of accessories above that available from Apple, investment in customer services (especially relating to faults, with customers able to bring products in for repair without making appointments), and enhancing in-store experiences.
"Our new APR-style stores offer an environment that's more welcoming and less business-focused," explains Ford. "This has been well received and resulted in consistent retail growth. And with people able to walk in at any time to book a repair and get advice, three-week delays are a thing of the past for Western Computer. Systems are now checked within 24 hours, and most service repairs are completed in under a week."
Some APRs aren't competing with Apple – instead, they're exploiting gaps, opening branches in locations devoid of Apple's own stores or retail-oriented APR equivalents. Albion recently opened iStore in Basingstoke's 165-store Festival Place. At a glance, iStore resembles a miniature Apple Retail Store, showcasing a range of Apple products, along with offering the services advocated by Western and Square.
"When choosing a location for a new outlet, we wanted a strong retail environment with good footfall to create awareness of our location," explains Albion MD Howard Cole. "Festival Place is vast, attracting nearly 18 million visitors a year from a large catchment area, and locals seem genuinely pleased that they now have a centre of excellence for Apple products that doesn't mean driving to Southampton or London."
Albion is currently exploring the possibility of new locations, as are Square and Western. Ford reveals Western's fourth retail store in Oxford will open in October, and notes that the company's business team has seen growth year-on-year, and that "education business has been incredible over the past three years".
Whether such rises rub off on the high street and retail sales remains to be seen (not least in a distinctly rocky British economy), but there's no doubt British Apple consumers – both existing and future – have never had it so good. Apple now has a real chance to make major in-roads into the UK 'home PC' market.
Try before you buy
In many places, the excuse of not buying any Apple kit because you can't touch and experience its products first-hand no longer exists.
Consumers at every level – seasoned users who know exactly what they want; newcomers looking for advice; and anyone requiring extended services – are now fully catered for by the mix of Apple resellers now available.
"The APR channel clearly addresses the retail, business and academic sectors, and Apple Retail Stores currently focus on the consumer market, but don't offer any system integration and installation services," says Ford. "There's enough business with the growth of Apple's market share for all parties to coexist and offer their own solutions.
First published in MacFormat issue 201
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