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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?

How have the remaining independent stores lived to fight another day? A few themes emerge.

Do what Apple doesn't. When a customer leaves their Mac for repair at Springboard Media, Katzen's staff loans them a new computer to use in the meantime. That's a service people appreciate, and often leads them to trade in their old machines for the newer model. And when they do buy the newer model, Springboard offers a wider array of third-party accessories than can usually be found at the Apple Store. Katzen is also considering offering customers off-site backup of their Mac hard drives.

"The dealers that have done great," he said, "are the dealers that have pushed themselves to offer creative services or new services."

Repair-oriented shops say they can often do repairs faster (and on older-model computers) than Apple Stores do. Daniel Janish, CEO of Keane in San Francisco, said his turnaround time is often two or three days--and he's heard from customers that the wait at the nearby Apple Store can be longer.

That lack of speed at the Apple Store may be partly the result of their success. "I don't know if you've been into a major metropolitan Apple Store recently," Janish said. "It's ... hectic."

Don't treat Apple Stores as the enemy. Janish, in fact, operated his business entirely online until 2007--then moved into a brick-and-mortar location about 100 yards from a San Francisco Apple Store. Why? Because Janish was convinced he could capture overflow traffic of customers looking for his type of services.

"We saw the opportunity to open a retail store and actually made the conscious decision to open as close to the Apple Store as possible," Janish said. He walks over to the Apple Store once a week to chat up employees there. "We have a pretty good relationship with the local stores."

Katzen agreed. He's thrived by offering services that help businesses "implement" and use the fleets of Macs they buy at the Apple Store

"I don't see the Apple retail stores as a threat or an enemy. I see them as an ally. I think we can help each other's businesses go," Katzen said. "They're better at attracting a big client--they have the beautiful store and the prestige location--and Apple brings us the opportunity to do the professional services part. In a way, it's wonderful they're there."

Keep evolving. The independents say they've noticed that Apple Stores are continually evolving in the range of services provided. That requires the independents to stay on their toes. The best way to survive, they say, is to be as flexible and adaptive as the competition.


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