IPhoning It In: Dispatches From Across the Country

Lines at Apple Stores Fertile Ground for Other Marketers

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Apple's done it again. Hype is now as synonymous with the brand as its clean lines, virtually virus-free software and rapidly shrinking iPods. The week leading up to today's nationwide release of the iPhone garnered massive amounts of free media for Apple, provided some savvy marketers a chance to reach a very captive (and affluent) audience and gave birth to one ad agency's first pro bono effort. Ad Age had reporters across the country scoping things out.
The view from within the cube of Apple's New York flagship store on Fifth Avenue.
The view from within the cube of Apple's New York flagship store on Fifth Avenue. Credit: Gregory Palmer

San Francisco
In downtown San Francisco, crowds gathered under a mild afternoon sun. Head count exceeded 150 by 1 p.m. Apple employees handed out SmartWater regularly to patient buyers-to-be, relief made all the more refreshing by a variety of street performers.

One West Coast ad-agency executive decided to camp outside the store beginning last night, owing to a strong geek reputation back at the office.

"I'm the digital-technology geek guy of the agency; if I don't get mine first, and have it Monday morning, it will be very embarrassing," said Hashem Bajwa, digital-planning director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. Mr. Bajwa said he saw the camp-out as a pleasant way to catch up on blogs, podcasts, e-mails and mags. His line-mates mostly resembled "the Mac guy from the ads."

"It's a beautiful night to be sleeping on concrete under the warm glow of the Apple logo," he said. He had fashioned a makeshift tent from a sheet, fleece throw and cardboard box. Colleagues are replenishing his laptop with extra batteries and providing relief now and then.

But the wheelers-and-dealers were out in full force. "One guy just came up to me and offered $200 to buy an extra iPhone for him," Mr. Bajwa said. In true Silicon Valley spirit, one fellow line-sitter carried a sign that read, "WILL TRADE iPHONE FOR VENTURE CAPITAL."

Middle America offered just as much excitement. Cincinnati's Apple store inside the Kenwood Towne Center mall didn't allow campers overnight, but that didn't stop Bryan Nix, a software engineer with DRS Infrared Technology, from snagging his first place in line at 9 a.m. today.

Someone -- he's not saying who -- let him into the mall at 6:30 a.m., two-and-a-half hours before the Apple store had said it would allow people to line up. Security guards told him he could stay in the mall with the elderly mall walkers, but couldn't line up outside the store until 9 a.m. He spent the next two-and-a-half hours engaged in a peculiar form of mall walking in a six-store radius of the Apple store to ensure his place in line, ahead of about two dozen others he said were lined up when the store opened.

"People looked at me like I was crazy," Mr. Nix said, though he believed it was worth it for the privilege of being, presumably, the first Cincinnatian to purchase an iPhone.

By 2 p.m. more than 70 people were iPhone-ready in Cincinnati, the line growing by about 20 to 25 people hourly.

The Big Apple
Perhaps the biggest hubbub took place in New York, and rightly so -- the Big Apple hosts the country's biggest Apple store, second in size only to London's 32,000-square-foot flagship.

The question on almost every buyer's mind was where to line up: Apple or AT&T? With two Apple locations and more than 15 iPhone-selling AT&T branches, one might think the decision an obvious one. But come noon Friday, the queue outside Apple's Fifth Avenue shop had exceeded 400 people, snaking almost a full city block around the subterranean Apple chamber.

"People want the full Apple-brand experience," said Joshua Topolsky, a contributing editor at Engadget.com, whose place in line fell past the 100 mark. "Of course we could have gone to an AT&T [store], but it's not the same. People want to be near the cube," Mr. Topolsky said, referring to the 32-foot glass cube that sits above Apple's underground retail store.

Remnants from last night's sleepover included several mattresses and tents, not to mention signs from clearly exhausted shoppers that read "Spot 4 Sale."

Vasily Zhuravlev, a pedicab driver in Manhattan, and a friend carried a mattress off the streets and into the 72nd and 73nd place in line. Today, Mr. Zhuravlev shared the twin-size space with a stranger.

"My friend sold his space for $600 this morning," he said. "That's why people are out here."

How did the line measure up to previous New York gaming and tech releases, in a city where hype equals not only money, but people's hard-earned time?
The campers were treated to Krispy Kreme doughnuts courtesy of representatives of ad agency LaForce & Stevens for breakfast on Friday at the Fifth Avenue Apple store.
The campers were treated to Krispy Kreme doughnuts courtesy of representatives of ad agency LaForce & Stevens for breakfast on Friday at the Fifth Avenue Apple store. Credit: Gregory Palmer

Nearly twice as many fans braved the cold for the November 2006 debut of Nintendo's Wii in Times Square, said Tiffany Chow, associate editor of Destructoid.com, a gaming-news blog. But waiting in the Apple queue proved a much more relaxed (and warmer) affair.

"People [outside Apple] have not been as territorial about it. Most have been friendly, fine with letting you come and go for bathroom and food breaks," said Ms. Chow.

Several promoters had their brands on hand for hungry, thirsty and tired campers. While Krispy Kreme met early-morning breakfast needs Friday, Sirius took advantage of rainstorms Wednesday and Thursday by passing out ponchos and hats to helpless shoppers. Even toy store FAO Schwartz, which sits adjacent to the Apple flagship, got into the mix: Campers were pegged with gift bags of bubbles, teddy-bear keyfobs and city-visitor info early Friday morning.

By noon today, the New York line count was as follows: at Apple's Fifth Avenue store, more than 400; at the Soho store, about 300. Oddly enough, on 47th and Fifth, only 10 people had gathered outside AT&T. Apple devotees didn't even show the love in Times Square, where a mere eight hopeful buyers had gathered.

Folks in line at AT&T, while limited to one iPhone per customer (Apple's max was two), seemed on the whole more interested in owning and using the unit than profiting from it. The group of 10 on 47th Street even had a nickname for those auctioneers up at the 5th Avenue flagship: the iLosers.

"I'm embarrassed enough to be waiting here in line for this iPhone -- it must be a generational thing -- but those guys just planning to turn around and sell it are ridiculous," said one shopper.

While this week's headlines made a king out of Greg Packer, a "retired" Long Island native who planted his beach chair on the Fifth Avenue pavement at 5 a.m. Monday, the real winner in all this is Anomaly's Johnny Vulkan, who's got first dibs downtown, at Apple's SoHo branch on Prince Street.
Greg Packer was first in line at the Midtown Apple store.
Greg Packer was first in line at the Midtown Apple store. Credit: Gregory Palmer

Mr. Vulkan devised a plan Sunday night to be the first in line for an iPhone, but with a catch: He'd give his to charity. By 7 a.m. Tuesday, when he and four co-workers laid down their blankets alongside Apple's steps, he had arranged a charity auction with Keep A Child Alive and AuctionWire.com -- and forged Anomaly's first-ever pro-bono effort in the process.

As the week progressed, press from MTV and Fox picked up on Anomaly's cause. By Friday, Bono had text-messaged kudos to Mr. Vulkan for his efforts, and, with a little help from friends at Apple, Spike Lee agreed to replace Mr. Vulkan's spot in line come 6 p.m., as the first iPhone buyer.

"It's been fun for the agency, but the most important thing we've done here, in such a short time, is raised several million dollars worth of media coverage and impressions for this organization," Mr. Vulkan said.

Blogosphere buzzing
On the blogosphere, anticipation of the iPhone launch easily surpassed that of any other new gadget or technology in the past year, according to data from Nielsen Buzzmetrics cited during a webinar yesterday, a day before the launch. The nearest thing to the iPod has been the Nintendo Wii, and even there the iPod's blog mentions swamped those of the Wii at its peak by more than 50%.

The question is whether the iPhone, like the Wii, will generate strong continuing buzz and sales, said Buzzmetrics Chief Marketing Officer Pete Blackshaw. But one sign of its staying power is that its blog mentions again surpassed those of Wii recently with the hype surrounding the iPhone release date. However, that many of the mentions are from people contending they aren't going to buy the iPhone or complaining about the terms of the AT&T service contract are signs that all that buzz may not translate into sales.

Contributing: Alice Cuneo, Jack Neff, Greg Palmer
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