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Independent Mac retailers emerge from the Apple Store shadow

Joel Mathis | May 19, 2011
Everett Katzen had every right to be nervous when an Apple Store opened last year, just a few blocks away from the downtown Philadelphia location where his Springboard Media shop has been selling and repairing Macs for 16 years. Apple Stores are retail juggernauts and tourist destinations. How on Earth could Katzen compete?

Everett Katzen had every right to be nervous when an Apple Store opened last year, just a few blocks away from the downtown Philadelphia location where his Springboard Media shop has been selling and repairing Macs for 16 years. Apple Stores are retail juggernauts and tourist destinations. How on Earth could Katzen compete?

Easy. By offering lots of little things Apple Stores don't or can't offer: personalized service, faster turnaround, a wider selection of accessories. After a year of competition, Katzen is confident of his store's future.

"The word survive is a really scary word. It just sounds so negative," Katzen said. "I want to thrive. There's so much cool stuff an Apple specialist can do."

Ten years, more than 300 stores, and nearly a billion visitors after Apple opened its first retail outlet in McLean, Virginia, the landscape has shifted radically for the independent stores that once served as Apple's main bridge to consumers. Some independent stores have adapted and continued on. A few are simply hanging on. And a few others couldn't compete and went under in a blaze of recrimination and lawsuits.

"We were an Apple-only store ... as a single small business, an independently owned store, we had a very loyal following," said Andy Gold, who for 25 years was the proprietor of the Neighborhood Computer Store in Lakeland, Colorado. He shuttered the operation in 2006 and filed a lawsuit against Apple, which was later settled.

"I wish I could've kept doing it," Gold said when interviewed for this story.

Survivors say Apple's muscle isn't the only reason they've been challenged in the last decade--the rise of Internet retailing has also been a factor. But Apple Stores did change consumer expectations, making it difficult for independents to keep up.

"[Apple's] free tech help at the counter, with the Genius Bar, has changed the parameters of what people expect for help--that you don't pay, or, if you do, you don't pay much," said Andrew Moldvay, a part owner of The Total Mac repair shop in San Francisco. He used to have three employees; now he works by himself.

Whatever their grumbles, even independent retailers concede that Apple Stores are big, beautiful, fantastic consumer environments.

"They look good," Moldvay said. "It's a great way to sell computers. If somebody is wondering what computer to buy, I tell them to go down to the Apple Store."

Survive and thrive

 

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