The inside story of Apple on the high street

Apple high street
Marks & Spencer recently began stocking Apple equipment (including the high-end MacBook Air) on its website and in some of its larger stores

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."