by Andrew Baxter, Jerry Jackson, and Kevin O’Brien
Few things are more American than than that giant oasis of consumer lust … the local shopping mall. Here in the United States (and gradually overseas) the most commonly seen stores dedicated to offering notebook computer deals are the Apple Store, SonyStyle store, and the Dell sales kiosks. With Labor Day sales week well underway and the holiday buying season just a few weeks away, three of our editorial staff members went deep inside this suburban jungle to figure out what these stores really have to offer.
Our experieces at the Kenwood TownCenter shopping mall in Cincinnati, Ohio reflect what we believe to be general consumer experiences at these major retail stores. Each of the three members of our undercover shopping team visited the stores alone at three different times during one afternoon in late August. While your local mall may not feature all three of these stores, here is what you can expect if they do.
The first thing a shopper is likely to notice about the Apple Store is the nice layout. The store is bright, open and inviting with cool exterior signage. There are numerous demo units sitting on desks and islands for shoppers to play with. All of the notebooks have wireless internet access setup so you can browse the web. In general, the entire store is setup so customers feel free to experience the products and ask questions.
The bright and open Apple Store. (view large image)
The open and inviting feeling is further reinforced by the sales associate experience. If a salesperson was available it took less than three minutes of using a MacBook or MacBook Pro before being asked if one of us had a question. The wait felt appropriate, so you didn’t feel you were immediately being jumped on inside the store.
All of the sales associates on duty during our visits were in their early twenties, a couple were slightly awkward with interactions but all were enthusiastic. When we asked about installing Windows on a MacBook two different associates suggested Parallels over Boot Camp. Both said Boot Camp was available for free but pulled a copy of Parallels ($79) off the shelf … indicating that it was easier just to use Parallels.
The sales associates were similarly knowledgable about a range of Apple notebook issues: everything from software to upgrading RAM. When we asked about why the black MacBook costs so much more, the sales associates indicated it was mostly due to higher specs, but also that the black finish is more expensive because it’s more unique and is better for hiding dirt. When we asked about how to access and open MS Word documents the sales reps indicated MS Word 2004 is the latest Office application out for the Mac and costs $399 and that Office 2008 is coming in January. One of the sales associates was quick to indicate iWork 2008 is much cheaper at $79 and lets you do basically anything the Office suite of Word, Excel and PowerPoint offer. Unfortuantely, iWork is not included with a MacBook purchase.
No sales pressure was applied. When Andrew indicated to the associate he’d like to play around on the notebook some more and browse the store the salesperson slapped him on the shoulder in a friendly manner and said to call over to him if he had any more questions. We’re guessing the shoulder slap was a little bit too chummy for most people.
One of the key benefits to purchasing a notebook at the Apple Store is that pricing is the same as online, but you can walk out with a notebook in hand and easily communicate with a sales rep face-to-face. Furthermore, Apple offers free classes for some of the software you get with a Mac, so it’s good to get to know your local Apple Store anyway if you purchase an Apple laptop.
During our multiple visits to the Apple Store many customers of all ages visited the store with their new purchases to get hands-on training regarding how to use their new computers. Interestingly, sales associates did not divulge the average in-store wait times for appointments at the "genius bar."
If the Apple Store is warm and inviting, the SonyStyle store is dark and mysterious. Think of it as a 21st century opium den for computer geeks. The dim lighting is clearly for effect in that it makes the notebook screens and TVs seem brighter, but it makes the products themselves harder to see. Several of the new Sony notebooks such as the VAIO CR series come in an assortment of attractive colors but we couldn’t see what the colors really looked like inside the store. It was so dark inside the store that we noticed two different customers knock over display stands because they couldn’t see well enough.
(view large image)
Speaking of display stands, the layout of the SonyStyle store is a little more cluttered than the Apple Store in that the aisles are much more narrow. On the other hand, Sony uses carpeting instead of hard wood floors, so SonyStyle gets points for being "cozy." At the time of this writing the main sales displays in the store featured "HDNA" ("High-Definition, it’s in our DNA"). Most of the notebooks on display also featured a wireless internet connection so shoppers can browse the web.
The sales experience inside the SonyStyle was a bit more "laid back" than what we saw and experienced at the Apple Store. Sales associates greet customers with a simple "Hello" upon entering the store and generally waited five to six minutes before approaching the customer. All of the staff we encountered were well groomed and professional with a reasonable degree of knowledge about the notebooks they sell.
When we asked a sales associate what processor was inside one of the Sony CR notebooks, he said "Core 2 Duo." When we asked about the speed of the processor he immediately indicated it was a 1.8GHz processor. When we asked about the CR having dedicated graphics, he correctly identified the system as featuring Intel integrated graphics and said the VAIO AR 17" notebook had the best dedicated graphics with an Nvidia 8600 card inside. The sales associate was similarly knowledgable about the VAIO AR and he was helpful on all aspects. When we asked about battery life he laughed and indicated it was poor and at best 2 hours, so he was really quite honest. He gave a nice rundown of all the ports, demonstrated the TV capabilities and explained how the Sony LocationFree device worked. He plugged the LocationFree device as being easier to use than a SlingPlayer, though essentially the same in terms of technology concept. The sales associate didn’t apply any sales pressure.
When we asked a sales associate to honestly explain why we should buy from their store rather than buy online the response was amazingly similar to what we heard at the Apple Store. The Sony salesperson said the primary benefit of buying from the store is getting help from a real human being. He also said that although the SonyStyle store doesn’t offer on-site technical support or repair they do offer free classes for customers to learn how to use their new Sony notebooks.
Alright, admittedly it’s not fair to compare a kiosk to a full store. However, if you’re a mall shopper you’re just as likely to purchase a notebook at the Dell Kiosk as the Apple Store or SonyStyle store. In fact, we found Dell had strategically placed posters and other print advertising all over the mall in an effort to draw shoppers to the kiosk.
A view of the surprisingly well-equipped Dell kiosk. (view large image)
The layout of the kiosk is fine for what it is. There is a range of Dell notebooks and desktops on display along with accessories, but it can get a bit crowded if there are more than three or four people at the kiosk at one time. The XPS M1330 notebook we found on display was just a shell, which was annoying. All the other notebooks on display were in proper working condition and had Internet setup, but there was only room for four notebooks (five if you count the M1330 shell) thanks to the desktops and accessories on display.
Space for notebooks at hte kiosk is limited thanks to the desktops. (view large image)
Our shopping experiences at the Dell kiosk were quite mixed. Two of us received help in a timely manner but one of us was never helped by the lone sales associate after waiting 15 minutes. Andrew waited the first 10 minutes while the sales associate apparently helped a previous customer setup a return over the phone. He saw Andrew and indicated he’d be over to help after being on the phone two minutes, but after the phone call the salesperson ended up helping somebody else that arrived after Andrew. The obvious downside of a mall kiosk store is that one sales associate isn’t enough to service multiple shoppers.
The rest of our undercover shopping team managed to get help from the associate after a few minutes. The sales associate knew the ins and outs of all the machines on display, including all of the customization options. When we asked about Dell’s recent shipping delays, the salesperson indicated the fastest way to get a new notebook is to select the black color rather than the customized colors advertised right at the kiosk. He also knew which hardware components would likely delay the shipping date. Oddly enough, when Kevin asked about installing XP on the new Inspiron notebooks the salesperson told Kevin that the Intel T7x00 series processors were Vista only, and Intel did not have drivers that made it work with XP. So either he intentionally lied or just didn’t know.
Every table in the food court featured Dell kiosk advertisements. (view large image)
When we asked why we should buy from the kiosk instead of directly from Dell’s website, the sales associate said the only benefits are seeing the products with your own eyes, dealing with someone who knows the configuration options, and a $100 dollar discount off the quoted price (at the time of this writing) when ordered through them.
Overall, your local shopping mall might actually be a decent place to pick up your next notebook. While it’s safe to say that you can probably find cheaper prices online using coupons and seasonal deals, there is something to be said for the face-to-face shopping experience. We actually highly recommend trying to test out a laptop before you buy it if you can, so if nothing else these stores offer an opportunity at that, and then you can hunt for the best price online.