Adventures in Retail

Had a few hours to kill in Midtown Manhattan today, and so took the opportunity to check out some retail that can only exist in New York.

First I went by the Apple Store on 5th Avenue, which I like to call the Mother Church (standard mall Apple Stores being known as the iShrine). I hadn’t been there before. In person, it is quite impressive. The glass cube occupies the center of a previously open plaza. Reminds me of a NeXT box crossed with the Louvre, which is probably the point. Entering the cube, you are standing on glass over an open hole. In front of you is a cylindrical elevator, and around the elevator curves a glass spiral staircase. A worker (acolyte?) seems to be constantly cleaning the glass steps by hand. Decending the staircase, you enter the underground store.

The store is fairly large, probably 4 times the size of a standard Apple store. And it is completely full of people standing around large blond wood tables fondling iPods and laptops. In this way it is fairly similar to a regular Apple store. However, if you try to buy an iPod, a major difference becomes clear. There are no cashiers in evidence, certainly not between you and the door. But if you stand there long enough, a red-shirted Apple rep with a backpack and a handheld Symbol scanner comes by. He will then offer to sell you one of the iPods out of his backpack, swipe your credit card through his device, and you are on your way. A similar setup applies to laptops and presumably to desktop computers. The net effect is they can vary the number of “cashiers” in real time, deploy them around the store as appropriate, allow them to encourage customers to make a decision, and make the instant gratification of shopping at the Apple store just a little more instant.

Secondly, I went to Bloomingdales for the first time. I hadn’t even been in a New York department store before, though I had been a few in Chicago. Much more so than any of the stores in Chicago, Bloomingdales reminded me what a department store was supposed to be, before malls and before they got killed by boutiques with good supply chains and big box retail. The most important difference between the Bloomingdales on 59th street and any department store I’ve visited in suburbia is not the size (it may actually be smaller) it is the sales people. I spent just a short time, checking out possible presents and looking at laptop bags. In that time I was approached by half a dozen sales people. And most interestingly, every one of them seemed intelligent and helpful, the kind of person who I would actually want to assist me with my shopping.

This is a level of service I have had trouble finding in Boston, though some of the stores at some of the high class malls in Newton can approach it. Obviously it is only possibly due to the density of rich people in Manhattan. But it is nice to benefit from it. I need to plan more time in New York for shopping.

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