Tales from the line-up for an Apple iPad

Saturday morning, I found myself in déjà vu land all over again, as they say. I spent the morning standing in line outside the Washington Square Apple Store in Tigard, Oregon–standing in nearly the same spot as when I queued up for the release of Apple Inc.‘s (NASDAQ: AAPL) original iPhone in 2007.

There was one big–and very important–difference, however. Back then, I stood (and sat and slept) in line for a little more than six hours. Today, I had a reservation for an Apple iPad, so I got to the line about an hour before the store opened. The only reason I was in line at all was that I needed to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible after the 9:00 a.m. opening–we had stuff to do with the kids starting at about 9:45 a.m. (UPS never seems to reach our home before 6:00pm, and I wasn’t going to be able to be home much of the day, so delivery was basically out.)

I was also there on a personal basis this time, where last time I was standing in line as part of my work for Macworld. On this occasion, though, I was buying an iPad for my new job with Many Tricks, to use for testing our first iPad application.

When I arrived, the Apple employees had set up two lines–one for those with reservations, and one for the walk-ups. The reservation line was very short, as you’d expect. (Most people with reservations seem smart enough to know they can walk in any time before 3:00 p.m. to get their iPad). The non-reservation line was about 75 people or so when I arrived, and maybe double that by the time the store opened.

From the start of my time in line, it was clear this particular Apple Store had plenty of inventory. People in the reservation line were told they could buy two even if they only reserved one, and they could also bump up (or down) in capacity if they wished. The Apple Store employees also surveyed the non-reservation line, asking each person which iPad they intended to buy. This info went into their iPhones, where (I assume) it then went back to the folks in the stock room to help pull inventory.

As I waited, I talked to some of the employees about the process. They told me that preparations began Friday night, though the real work started with the “early crew” Saturday morning. In this case, early really means early–these folks arrived at 1 a.m. to redo the store’s interior.

Most of the rest of the employees arrived between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. to work on final store prep, crowd control, and “energy distribution” in the form of free coffee (and water) and donuts for those in line.

When opening time came, the reservations line moved first, and 15 people were let in. Each person met their own dedicated Apple Store employee, who then walked them into the store. As it turned out, I must have been 17th in line, because I was second in the new “shorter” line after this first wave. We waited a few minutes, and then the first person came out with her brand-new iPad (to much photography and cheering), and one person from the non-reservation line was let in. (I imagine this line moved much faster once they cleared out the reservations line, but I didn’t stick around to watch the logistics.)

A minute or two later, it was my turn, and I was escorted in by my personal shopping assistant. After some consideration, I added the Apple case and a VGA adapter to my 16GB iPad, and proceeded to the counter to receive the well-packaged iPad. After that, it was credit card time with the personal shopping assistant, and I was out the door and on my way home. The whole process couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes.

One thing that really stood out is that Apple clearly knows how to handle large crowds efficiently yet personably–at no time did I feel rushed, and I was even encouraged to spend some hands-on time with the machine (“Sorry, no time, kids waiting at home!”).

Overall, picking up the iPad was well worth the minor hassle–I got the device much earlier than I would have via UPS, I got to talk to a bunch of similar-minded folks, and I even enjoyed a free donut and water on Apple’s dime, thereby lowering my iPad’s cost by a good $1.25 or so!


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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