Confessions of an Apple Retail Employee

The yearly "Big Day" isn't so bad

By an Ex-Apple Employee

apple storeThe release of the iPhone 4 is a major step for Apple. After the prototype was leaked weeks before the official unveiling at the World Wide Developers' Conference (WWDC), Apple received 600,000 pre-orders for the iPhone 4 in one day. By comparison, the first iPhone took about 75 days to reach one million sales in 2007. Clearly, each year's iPhone release is filled with more features, more sales, and more people in line.

But what is it really like to work an iPhone launch event?

Surprisingly, it's not that bad. I was an Apple Retail employee for about two years – and in my time with the company, worked the iPhone 3G launch in 2008 and the iPhone 3GS last year. Both events were two of the most fun-filled, stressful, relaxing and tiring days of my tenure.


We're just customers, too

Before I talk about the Big Day, let me clear up some common misconceptions from customers. No, I really don't know when "the new iPhone" will be announced or released. Apple takes secrecy very seriously, and the retail employees find out about product launches at the same time as consumers. Trust me, buddy: We read the same articles on MacRumors.com that you do.

I also don't know – nor do I particularly care – when the iPhone will be offered on other cell carriers. Again, public knowledge rules. It's widely known that Apple and AT&T signed some agreement of exclusivity, and clearly that agreement hasn't expired yet.

Finally, all iPhones must leave the store activated. It's wonderful that you want to surprise your [insert relative here] with a shiny new iPhone, but yes, you will have to either cut off their existing phone's service (by transferring the number) or purchase the iPhone with a new number.


The Big Day

apple storeA typical launch day actually starts the evening prior. Some employees will work an overnight shift, transforming the store for the Big Day after close-of-business. That in itself is no small task. There are security cables to be run, software packages to be installed, serial numbers to be catalogued, accessories to be displayed, and the list goes on. Overnights are a ton of fun, although a bit stressful – you are, after all, working against the clock! Those working the overnight shifts are the first retail employees to see, touch and play with the new iPhones.

As the sun begins to rise on the Big Day, the overnighters finish up (hopefully) as the opening shift employees report for duty, around 6AM. By this time, a line has typically formed outside the store. The Apple employees must then separate the group into two lines: those who reserved a phone online, and those who did not. Last year's launch of the iPhone 3GS was the first where customers could reserve online for in-store pickup, or elect to have their phone shipped directly to their door.

Honestly, the option of shipping is a relief. Yes, there are still massive lines for a week or two, but everyone in line wants to be there. They are willing to wait around for instant gratification, time with one of us, and the chance to talk "all things Apple" with their neighbors in line.


Interacting with the crowd

apple store

Once the lines are separated, we drop the unwieldy black velvet curtain covering the front of the store, and mob the line, running, cheering and giving out high-fives along the way. Showing the groggy customers how enthusiastic we can be – especially so early – goes a long way in boosting morale across the board.

As we start bringing customers into the store, some of us walk through the lines, answering questions, handing out free coffee and snacks, and yes, chatting "all things Apple" with the more talkative. Some check upgrade eligibility for customers who think they may have to pay full price (as opposed to the advertised $199/$299). Still others offer demonstrations of new apps and services that work with the iPhone. We demo the iPhones and their new features, and let customers see the back plates to aid in their toughest decision – black or white?

Most transactions go smoothly. Porting numbers from another carrier is always a shot in the dark, as the port can fail for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, we have to call our "friends" at AT&T to help push the transaction along, as Apple stores cannot readily access account information. In 2008, with the iPhone 3G release, the AT&T activation servers went down repeatedly, and there was nothing we could do.

Happy to be there

The mood is always light-hearted on the Big Day. Everyone – customers and employees alike – receives free food of some variety, and ample breaks are given to rest our aching feet. Extra help is always appreciated, and staying past the end of your shift is usually fine, provided you take appropriate breaks and remember your life outside of work. I must have earned 15 hours of overtime during one Big Day and the week following.

Now, these iPhone events aren't all sunshine and rainbows. With the good customers come the crazies. The ones who come to the front of the line (or right into the store) demanding to be helped "right now" – and don't understand how lines work. The ones who complain about long wait times when they elected not to reserve a phone ahead of time – the reservation line moves quicker, about 10 reservations to one walk-in. The ones who feel "more" entitled to a phone when the supply runs low because they've owned every Apple product under the sun (hint: so have I – not impressed) and are "loyal" customers as a result.

Regardless, everyone stays in good spirits, and that's why I say iPhone launch days are some of the most fun. Because at the end of the annual Big Day, after working countless hours with equally-enthused coworkers, chatting up customers, calling AT&T repeatedly, being thanked by the Good Ones and aggravated by the Bad Ones, I could ride the escalator up to my car and say to myself, "it's just a phone."


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