Apple Stores Are Different

by Derrick Story

Laptop batteries are great... until every now and then one goes bad. And if you want to alienate your local independent Mac retailer, or even Apple itself, then simply tell them that you have a dead battery that's still under warranty. They will run from you like the plague.

Inside, on some deeper level, I must have known what I was in for. Why else would I have let my deceased PowerBook G4 battery sit there in my office for more than three months without exchanging it for a new one? Finally, a week ago Saturday (Aug. 2), I took the battery with its documentation to the closest independent Apple dealer.

Round One: The Apple Authorized Service Provider

When I handed my battery to the salesperson and explained that it was under warranty, but no longer worked, his expression changed from cheerful to anxious. I might as well have thrust Plutonium toward him. He said nervously, "I'm not authorized to exchange this battery. You will have to come back Monday."

Unfortunately I had this other little thing to attend to on Monday... called my job. So I telephoned instead. That was a mistake. Not only was my call not answered by a human, I had to endure 8 minutes of auto attendant looping before I could even leave a message, which was never returned.

After much persistence, I was finally able to talk to a live person the following afternoon. The news was bad. "Apple policy says we can't help you. You have to call AppleCare." Disgusted, I called AppleCare, and the service rep said that he could help me, but it would be somewhat tedious. The easiest thing to do would be to take my battery and my computer to an Apple Store, which was about an hour away, traffic willing.

I decided to try another local Apple Authorized Service Provider to see what they had to say. When I explained my situation, I swore I could hear his eyes rolling back. At least he explained why he couldn't help me, which I'll cover later in this post.

Round Two: The Apple Store

So my last hope was the Apple Store in Emeryville, CA. I went straight to the Genius Bar that was surrounded by laptop-toting Californians. The technician was juggling three customers who were at various stages of reaching their personal solution when he waved me over. I explained my situation and showed him my documentation. He tested the battery. "Let me go grab a new one out of stock he said." I was home free!

Well, not exactly. The store was out of stock of PB G4 batteries. I had two options: 1) Have him call me when they arrive, and I go pick it up, or 2) He enter a case in the Apple system, then I call AppleCare, provide the case number, and have it sent to my home. I chose door number two.

A couple days later I called AppleCare and gave them my case number. After a little wrangling, they finally agreed to send me a battery, and I agreed to return the dead one. I had to give them a my Visa card number in case I failed to follow through with my end of the bargain. I'm convinced that had it not been for the effort of the technician at the Genius Bar carefully entering the documentation in the Apple system, I never would have won my case on the phone with AppleCare. It was a close call as it was.

Round Three: Here's How It Works

Along the way, I've learned a few things that I'd like to pass along.

  • Everything is easier with an AppleCare Protection Plan. I know it's expensive, but it opens many doors and makes repairs and parts replacement much easier. Your one-year complementary computer warranty is good too, but one year goes fast. You can purchase AppleCare anytime during the one-year warranty period, and if you have a laptop, that's what I recommend you do. Wait until 10 months or so if you need to, but do so before your complementary warranty expires.

  • With Apple, it's easier to replace computers than parts. If your problem is associated with a covered computer, even independent authorized dealers can help you. But with parts purchased off the shelf, such as batteries, mice, keyboards and even AirPort Base Stations, the situation gets a bit more dicey. Computer serial numbers are stored in the Apple database and are easily verified. Battery serial numbers are not. Most independent dealers are not willing to hassle with Apple over a part that they may ultimately get stuck with if they can't prove that it's covered. So that one year warranty written on a piece of paper that comes with a battery you buy off the shelf might be technically valid, but in the real world it isn't worth much... with one exception: if you have an Apple Store nearby.

  • Apple Stores are far and away the most helpful, and powerful ally you can have to help you maintain your Mac. AppleCare on the phone is tedious at best. And the people on the other end of the line seem to have a hard time remembering correct Apple policy. Authorized Service Providers don't have as much leverage with Apple as the Apple Stores do, and whenever possible, they will put the problem back in your lap instead of on theirs. Plus, Apple Stores seem to hire bright people who know what they are doing. And more importantly, they have the authority to make decisions. I've been in four different Apple retail outlets so far, and I've had good experiences. I've been in three independent stores in the last year, and left frustrated each time.

My bottom line is that Apple Stores are vital for maintaining customer satisfaction. Not only are they a great place to buy equipment; they are a good resource to help you maintain it. I think independent authorized dealers will continue to survive in areas not serviced by official Apple Stores (or in the same area if they provide equal customer service).

But in my experience, Apple Stores are different, and better, than nearly any other brick and mortar option available. I hope they continue to flourish (possibly one north of the Golden Gate Bridge?).


2003-08-13 08:55:29
Apple Stores
(possibly one north of the Golden Gate Bridge?)

It's not Sebastapol, but how does Corte Madera sound?

2003-08-13 09:02:03
short sighted
As much as I like the products Apple manufactures, their shafting of retailers leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth. It's not the fault of other retailers that Apple SEVERELY biases their policies towards their own stores, but then who suffers? Case in point: Apple is only going to deliver G5 systems to other retailers with preorders (deposits required) initially while their own stores are going to be stocked. So, with two Apple stores less than 15 miles from one local retailer, PLUS Apple offering their 'Pro Card' ONLY to Apple store buyers, who'd buy from the other guy? And then Apple makes returns and exchanges problematic for other retailers but can tell you - in their own store - that they can offer assistance that they don't allow other retailers to provide. Makes them look like the hero, huh?
As an Apple rep in one of these 'other' retailers, I can tell you that every day someone asks 'why should I buy anything here instead of at the Apple store?' and since Apple keeps screwing us on not being able to offer the same specials and policies, what should I say? Worse still, Apple will send all those broken-systems folks to us. So we're supposed to be free tech help for people who spent their money somewhere else. It's disgusting.
2003-08-13 10:04:00
short sighted
I have to agree with this poster.

Apple has to stop screwing retailers. On a slightly different but related note, they should also try not to screw independent software developers too.

2003-08-13 10:23:24
my battery story
After the genius at the bar dropped my battery on the floor, he asked me to wait a minute and disappeared. I didn't have time to complain about his fumble fingers before he took off and did not need to complain when he returned. He came back with a new battery.
2003-08-13 10:34:47
Re: short sighted (please step back for a second)
OK, point well taken. But let me expand on what I consider the real issue here -- customer service.

First, according to my research, I agree that Apple Stores have more leverage with Apple than the independent authorized dealers. But I also believe that from a customer POV, this is not a deal breaker for the independents.

In my personal experiences over the past year, where the Apple Stores have really excelled is with customer service. This is something that the independents can clearly compete with if they want to.

When I called the Apple Store in Emeryville with my problem, the phone was promptly answered and my question was addressed. It took me a day and a half to talk to a human at my local store, and that was after lots of automated attendant aggravation.

In fact, I never got a real explanation for why they couldn't help me until mid week. Once I understood their POV, I moved forward with my process taking a different route. No hard feelings.

If I had been treated with respect, since that's the way I approached them, I would certainly consider shopping there again. But I'm not returning to that independent store because I was not treated well. It has nothing to do with leverage.

The real point is customer service. I'm going to shop where I get the best service, regardless if it's an Apple Store or an independent dealer.

2003-08-13 10:37:50
Re: my battery story
Clearly, that's a line of work for the sure-handed. Even so, I'm always a little nervous when the technician says, "Hey, toss that PowerBook over to me, would ya!"
2003-08-13 10:38:20
Re:Apple Stores
Hmmm, that's not a bad Saturday drive... Sure beats crossing the San Rafael Bridge.
2003-08-13 11:55:02
my battery story
Note to self: when returning questionable battery, coat with thin layer of Wesson...
2003-08-13 12:42:40
Re: short sighted (please step back for a second)
Perhaps when geographic issues come in to factor, things are different, but I for one repeatedly spend HOURS with customers, helping them, solving their issues, finding solutions for their needs, and then some Apple troll chimes in with 'go to the Apple store, they have a special right now...' or what have you. A week later they come back with questions about their new system - purchased youknowwhere - and they come back because the Apple store folks don't provide the same level of knowledge and service that I do. But that didn't stop them from buying elsewhere. Apple does not give us the same leverage with policies and specials that they themselves benefit from, and we lose sales.
This isn't a new phenomenon - we still get the folks who are grilling us for info only so that they can place an order online and get 'free' RAM.
Also unfortunately, you are going to get subpar service more and more from other retailers. My staff is unmotivated to sell Macs - there's more money to be had in PC sales for them, and when Apple constantly stabs them in the back (including never paying out promised sales incentives) and the only 'customers' coming in are only looking for answers and not products (except the legacy folks that Apple sends our way for SCSI cards and ADB mice) no one wants to bother. Apple even offers sales staff an 'incentive' to buy a Mac - a discount on purchases over $999, only redeemable at the Apple store online.
2003-08-13 14:10:02
Re: short sighted (please step back for a second)
I'm really sorry that it's such a bummer situation for you. I don't know about your sales staff, but it sounds like you're making a true effort to provide good customer service. I'm guessing that your prices are on par with the competition's. If so, then you might have more loyal customers than you realize. If I got better, more knowledgeable service from you, for about the same price, it would be a no-brainer for my loyalty. Maybe consider some innovative customer programs too?
2003-08-13 14:32:11
Apple Stores
This is all well in good. I believe the nearest Apple Store is 3 hrs away. CompUSA is pretty good at support and there's a nice little shop around the corner. Anyways, not everybody can easily get to the genius bar...


2003-08-13 17:23:23
My heart bleeds...
The rest of the world is so sick of American-centric bullshit. Oh poor baby - you have to cross a bridge and drive an hour to get to an Apple store.

Try finding one in Australia. Or Italy. Or Brazil.
Good luck.

I expect better from O'Reilly than this kind of myopic xenophobic subjectivism.

Y'know, the Internet is a GLOBAL audience.

2003-08-13 19:04:41
Re: short sighted - Apple is fair
I do the somewhat the opposite.

I place my orders online, but rarely at the Apple Store. I look for the best deal possible, including shipping, tax, free stuff, etc. Online stores like PCConnection often have the best deals. Believe me, the online and retail Apple Store NEVER have the best deals.

And then, when I have a problem I go to the Apple Store. They are very knowledgeable, and as Derrick mentioned, they have awesome customer service. Not to mention the rest of the experience. My Kid loves the Apple Store, and can play for hours (if I let him) in the specially designed for kids section.

So I don't see how Apple is screwing anybody. You might actually be complaining about people buying from PCConnection and similar stores and then going to your store for service, because there is no Apple Store nearby.

This sounds like negative attitude to me. Your company should get their butt in gear and actually be more competitive instead of whining.

Also, like Derrick said, if you really provide excellent service for your customers, you might be in good shape. The people going to other stores just because they get free ram, will probably be the exception and not the rule. Establish a similar program like the Pro-card in the Apple stores, provide "free ram" (then charge an installation fee :) or do something, but don't blame Apple for your problems.

2003-08-13 21:03:09
My heart bleeds...
Wow, you're cranky.

I think his point about customer service and unfair treatment is a good one.

Maybe someone from Apple will read this article and take it to heart. Who needs such treatment on a justified exchange? It shouldn't be so darned difficult no matter where you live, bridge or no bridge.

2003-08-13 21:56:47
Home is where you plug in your laptop
I guess every now and then it's worth taking a few moments to define terms.

I want to clarify the difference between a weblog on O'Reilly Network, and an article. Our weblogs tend to focus more on the personal side of technology. They are diaries of our experiences in this crazy world where computers and people collide.

Articles on the other hand should place more emphasis on how to do something or how something works. We realize that we are part of a world community, and in our articles, we try to write with that in mind.

When I, or another one of our writers talk about our personal computing experiences in a weblog, we try to do so in a way that taps universal themes. Apple Computer and customer service are two such themes.

So whether it is the Pacific Ocean that influences my life, or the Atlantic that influences yours, certain human and business themes transcend these geographical landmarks. I don't see these themes as xenophobic at all; actually, they are archetypal.

So please, when you read a weblog, give the writer a little latitude... and longitude too for that matter. I may charge up my PowerBook battery in Santa Rosa, and you recharge yours in Sidney. But regardless of our geographical locations, we are Mac users, and therefore have many things in common.

2003-08-14 05:04:23
My heart bleeds...
Yeah - I'd love one in Hong Kong too - but my heart doesn't bleed. The local stores here do a great job... I think an Apple Store here would kill them.

Shame the whinging AnonymAussie had to diss Derrick - he could hardly talk about his Apple experiences in Australia if he's not been there.

I reckon anonymous posts should be stopped...

Oops - am I logged in?


2003-08-14 10:09:38
Apple Stores--My Experience
We have an Apple Store here in Buffalo, NY and since they have been here, I've purchased a bunch of stuff there. Partly I want them to get business and say here and partly I like actually seeing the computer I am buying and going home with it.

I bought an eMac for my mom last Xmas and it had a printer deal with it ($99 rebate). I got the eMac out to the car and realized the box didn't fit. Apple Store person helped me pull parts out of the box and he took the box away for me. Xmas morning, we realized we needed the UPC from the box for the printer deal.

With a sinking feeling, I called the store a day or two later to ask if the box was still around. I was amazed to hear that not only had an alert employee cut off the UPC for me, but it was already in an envelope addressed to me.

The customer service I've received through the store has been exceptional and I really hope they keep it going.


2003-08-14 14:12:03
Re: short sighted (please step back for a second)
Well Apple and most other manufacturers do MSRP/MAP so pricing is similar across retail chains. We can't undersell our RAM the way online stores do; overhead and cost is prohibitive; but shipping plus the ease of returns and exchanges are in our favor. With two Apple stores nearby, RAM is much cheaper at our store and at least a selling point.
I wonder how exactly it is that the one person figures that if he buys his systems online and gets 'great service' and baby sitting at the retailers that the retailers are supposed to stay in business to provide that?
We have loyal traffic; not so much 'buyers'. A lot of folks hang out at the store. I speak with these folks regularly to see what kinds of offerings/solutions we could make to entice them to buy something. I'm trying to get our store to reopen their training center (another revenue stream). I have been working on trying to do some innovative programs, and I do hope that helps. We can't do a 'pro-card' deal just now but I do talk with management (at Apple and this chain) about trying to get these things.
I do understand that competition is a good thing, and I'm certainly all for that - but Apple repeatedly oversteps the bounds of fair competition with its retailers by not providing the same latitude with policies and items (like the battery - what store wants to eat a battery cost? When Apple does it, they don't have to), stocking their stores and not others, and restricting the promotions and offers we can make. I cannot get the staff excited to sell Macs under those conditions. They refer to being in the Mac section as 'punishment'. The ones who knew Macs felt shorted and now the whole staff rotates - which means less knowledgable people in the Mac section, and ultimately, the quality of service degrades.

2003-08-14 21:45:06
my ipod
awhile ago, my ipod went to crap after windows decided it didn't like the ipod's hard drive and information. it went from accessible, to accessible for 2 minutes, to the ipod just giving me that folder icon with an exclamation.

i called applecare... you say its tedious. i got a rep everytime, in less than 3 minutes.

eventually, they replaced the old ipod with a new one of the same generation...

anyway, just saying, applecare over the phone was a breeze for me.

2003-08-14 23:24:07
Re: my ipod
You know, I'm not surprised at all that it went well for you. There's something about laptop batteries that challenge the whole service network. A busted iPod seems like an easier case to prove.

And BTW: I called AppleCare three times during my battery ordeal, and two of the interactions were fine, although not as smooth as yours. Those interactions, however, weren't as good as those at the Apple Store. The third call turned out OK, but I didn't get the best customer rep at first, and it was a difficult conversation.

Overall, however, I would say AppleCare does an admirable job. The front line reps don't always seem as knowledgeable as they should be. I can roll with it if they have a good attitude though. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt realizing that customer service is hard work.