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  • The Mac Hardware Report: Apple Starts and Stops Mac mini Trial Marriage

    September 3rd, 2005

    Update! Way back in the early days, Apple offered a Mac test drive in an effort to bring new users to the fold. The program was more trouble than its worth, and was eventually discontinued. But the germ of an idea remained, perhaps something to be tried again in a different time and place. In fact, just two years ago, I made a pitch for such a promotion in these pages, although, unlike most efforts of this sort, I suggested that you didn’t actually have to buy a new Mac. Instead, you’d leave your credit card number as a deposit against its safe return, take one home for a few days, and if you liked it, you could purchase the refurbished or demo model at a slight discount, or exchange it for a brand new unit.

    Either way, you wouldn’t be charged a cent if you just returned the unit in good condition and went on with your life.

    Now such a program isn’t easy to manage. I admit that, and in this day and age, I’m sure more than a few folks would try to find ways to trick Apple into giving them a free computer. I’m also quite sure that Apple didn’t consider my ideas for a moment when it decided, at least for 24 hours, to promote a trial marriage with the Mac mini.

    Now there’s nothing terribly innovative about the now discontinued program. Lots of dealers have 30-day return policies on many of their products. But Macs have not been part of the picture. At best, you get 15 days to return the product and at worst, you can only return a unit that’s dead on arrival.

    Apple’s new program, unlike what you’ve heard in some quarters, was strictly limited to its online store and scheduled to expire on October 31, 2005. During its brief appearance, you would have been able to purchase a Mac mini at the regular retail price in one of the three standard configurations, plus an optional Apple keyboard and mouse, and, if you didn’t like it during the 30-day trial period, you can pack it up and return it for a full refund of your purchase price. The conditions were fairly limited. You were expected to return your Mac mini undamaged in its original, unaltered packaging with all supplied accessories. Once you request an RMA from Apple, you’ll have two weeks to send the merchandise back and your refund is “based on your original method of payment.” This means, for example, that if you use a credit card, the refund will be credited to that card.

    Sounds pretty simple to me, and the legal fine print is perfectly sensible for such a program. Unfortunately it was pulled hours after the word got out. I still think it would have been a good way to persuade some people who are on the fence about switching to Macs to take a chance.

    Did Apple risk losing lots of cash on this deal, after being inundated with returned minis? I don’t think so. I suspect only a small percentage of purchasers will actually be dissatisfied, and the products they return will simply be “refurbished” and resold at reduced cost. The resale won’t restore Apple’s profits, but it won’t lose a great deal of money either when it has to grant a refund.

    As an experiment, I think would probably have succeeded, but I don’t think the Mac mini test drive went far enough. For one thing, a program of this sort doesn’t really work unless you back it up with a sufficient amount of advertising dollars. More to the point, why limit it to Apple’s online store? What about the retail outlets? What about letting third party dealers get in on the action?

    For now, it was nothing more than a very conservative, tentative step, and I suppose some folks with a more negative point of view than I have on such matters will suggest Mac mini sales aren’t as high as expected, and there are lots of unsold boxes to move. Perhaps. If anything, Apple ought to consider a restoring that 30-day trial program, but this time focus on the Power Mac, which has been underperforming for quite a while now. Perhaps Mac professionals aren’t as apt to be enticed into purchase decisions as casually as regular consumers, but if some are standing pat awaiting the arrival of MacIntels, it may be enough to get them off the fences.

    Of course, a deep discount program would help as well. As I said, I don’t think a lot of people truly return products when offered 30-day return policies. Such programs are quite common, although computers and other electronic products tend to be limited to 14 days, and there’s often a 15% “restocking fee” if the unit isn’t defective. In case you’re wondering, Dell’s return policy calls for 21 days on most models, except for its server products, and you are still obligated to pay shipping and restocking charges.

    But maybe I’m making too big a deal over all this. The program has come and gone, with no explanation as to why it went away. Perhaps it was just a test, or a mistake. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but Apple would do well to consider bringing it back. Strike while the iron is hot.

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