No doubt you’ve heard the news. Best Buy is carrying the Mac mini. But this isn’t the first time that huge chain of consumer electronics outlets carried Macs and the previous experience didn’t exactly inspire optimism.
Do any of you remember? At one time you could find a limited selection of new Macs at such retail outlets Best Buy, Circuit City and even Sears. Now it was hardly a marriage made in heaven, because Macs were frequently left in a dark corner, catching dust, as the sales droids directed you to a Windows box instead? Which one? Well, usually the one that had the largest sales spiff, or bribe as it were, that particular month.
Back in 1998, Steve Jobs recognized that Macs were not doing well in such outlets, and pulled the plug. It’s not that it was unexpected. Apple built its own chain of retail outlets largely as the result of the poor sales experience many potential Mac users confronted. Now it’s also true that some of the independent Mac only stores also seem to be challenged by nearby Apple stores, but that’s another story, and all I might say now is that the handwriting is, sad to say, on the wall.
Here in 2005, we’ve come full circle, more or less. The iPod paved the way, since it’s tailor made for mass marketing, and, sure enough, you can get them in at least some configurations at Best Buy and even Circuit City. So Mac mini seems a natural for such outlets, right? Sure enough, Apple has already made rapprochement efforts with Best Buy. In 2003, Macs were placed at some of the chain’s outlets, in a pilot program. As with many of the CompUSA stores, Apple dispatched its own employees to make sure that Macs got a fair shake.
I didn’t hear much more about that program, until Best Buy started carrying the full line of Apple computers at its Web site. Yes, even the Power Macs. So it was clear that something was indeed afoot. For now, at least, both Apple and Best Buy are making a big fuss about the new arrangement, and one hopes that the mini won’t get short shrift this time. Since there’s a Best Buy outlet within five minutes of my office, I’ll be planning on developing a friendly relationship.
Now perhaps I shouldn’t be so pessimistic about the success of such things, but I can’t help the way I feel. I don’t see how a Best Buy store is an ideal setting for a product that requires knowledgeable salespeople. Sure, the iPod can sell itself, but putting a Mac cheek by jowl in an environment surrounded by Windows PCs is another story. The mini may be cute and touchable, but potential customers are going to have lots and lots of questions, and where are they going to get answers? Will the keyboards and mice on display work with a mini? What about printers? And where, or where, is the software? When was the last time you found Mac software in a Best Buy?
When I checked Best Buy’s Web site, which has a far greater selection than the retail outlets, I found exactly seven Mac software titles, four of which were cross-platform. The former included AppleWorks, Microsoft Office and Quicken 2005. Of course the first and last are already bundled with the Mac mini, so that wasn’t much help.
This is not to say that there won’t be a special section with Mac software in the stores themselves, but a sparse selection will simply fuel the myth that there’s very little software for the Mac. And unless the salespeople are cautioned to be careful about such things, you can bet they will help to perpetuate all the myths we’ve heard through the years. Now I suppose it’s possible that Apple might dispatch some of its own sales people to help out, but the announcements I’ve heard so far don’t mention anything of the sort.
I hate to be so pessimistic. After all, there is an upside to putting the Mac mini head to head with PC boxes in a consumer electronics outlet. But the display environment has to be carefully designed, and potential buyers will have to be educated with signs and multimedia displays, since you won’t be able to count on the sales staff to help. (All right, not all Best Buy salespeople fit into this category, but the helpful and well-informed person is the exception rather than the rule.)
Can a Mac succeed in that environment? The sad lessons of history aren’t very encouraging, but I have to believe that Steve Jobs isn’t going to allow Macs to be given short shrift once again. Maybe it is true that the Mac mini will simply sell itself by its unique looks, assuming it isn’t buried in the middle of a long display of big computers. It requires a very special presentation, and it also demands a display motif that requires minimal maintenance.
How will this all turn out? Well, ask me again six months from now, after I have a chance to see how it develops. If it truly succeeds, will the Mac mini also find end up at Wal-Mart next? Stranger things have happened.
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