The Apple Store in Shanghai makes me happy. And I don't mean the warm-puppy-on-a-Hallmark-card or a smile-from-a-friend kind of happy. I mean a deep, existential, all-encompassing, I've-finally-found-the-meaning-of-life kind of happy. Why? Because Apple retail has discovered one of the core yearnings of the human soul, a quantum leap above Maslow’s highest level on hierarchy of human needs – which is, we all want to understand and use cool technology but we don't want to look like flaming idiots when learning to do so. Employees at any Apple store around the world understand this and, no matter where they are or what language they speak, they seem to be able to meet the customer where the customer feels the most uncomfortable … and then makes the customer feel like the smartest person in the room. [Ed Note: Kent does not, nor has he ever, owned stock in Apple. In fact, he doesn't own stock in anything. All of Kent's money is invested in used guitars. He will die a poor and lonely man.]
Most electronic retail stores in China resemble the Land of Misfit Toys, the shelves jammed higgly-piggly with electronic detritus, like a server-farm just puked its guts out and someone slammed some price tags on the big chunks. The stores are staffed by a group of surly young guns placing somewhere on the Asperger spectrum who, somehow, are able to exhibit equal and simultaneous amounts of despotic aggression and pathological apathy. To ask a question of these cerebral killers is to open yourself up to immense ridicule – and since many of them speak very good English, they can shame you in multiple languages, adding linguistic insult to injured ego. If you purchase the right thing, you’re just lucky; if you purchase the wrong thing and want to take it back, you’re out of luck … it would be easier to repeal a Republican tax cut than to get your money back from them.
But not at the Apple store … (cue heavenly harp music)
I was at the Shanghai flagship Apple Store a couple of weeks ago to buy an external keyboard for my iPad (which I am increasingly using instead of a laptop when I travel ... aren't I just the coolest guy in the world??). I found the one that I thought I wanted and asked a very helpful girl in the Apple-standard-blue shirt if I could look at it. She said, "Of course!" and proceeded to unwrap the product and hand it to me. She then stepped back and let me look at it. I had seen these in a magazine and it looked pretty easy to set up - you just fold this thing back and then ... no, wait, um ... fold this other thingy back and then these little Velcro dealy-bops go ... no ... er ...maybe … um … maybe if I put this part over there and ... hmmm, what's this for? ... maybe I should just rip that off, it doesn't look like it belongs ...
Of course, possessing both and X and a Y chromosome, I was incapable of asking for directions or assistance. But she didn't do what I would have done and whup me upside the head with the empty box. Instead, she said, "Here, let me get an iPad so you can see if you like how it works" (and did not add, as I would have, "...because if we have to wait for YOU to do it we will also be able to witness real-time mammal evolution and continental drift!").
She went to get an iPad from another table and, as naturally as if she'd been trained to serve mental midgets like me all her life, she gently pried the cover from my fat fingers, laid it on the table and flip-flip-flip, set it up in seconds, as designed, put the iPad on it, linked it via Bluetooth and stepped back to let me play with it. Now during this feat of prestidigitation, I sat there with my own digits metaphorically up my nose, completely baffled at how she could do this so effortlessly, almost as if there were some instructions written in a magical language for which only she knew the abracadabra-code. And I don't know how she did it, but she made me feel like I had just done it myself ... or, at least I could have done it myself … you know … if left in the privacy of my own home where my techno-weenie shame would not have to be demonstrated to the world ... I could figure it out myself, you know, eventually. Which, when you think of it, is just kind of like doing it yourself, right there … really. At least it is if you're a guy.
To me, the Apple Store is at the pinnacle of retail perfection and simply cannot be improved. Well, maybe the only way they could make it better is to serve donuts. Donuts with hot fudge. Oh, and foot massage too. But really, that’s all they’d need to do.
Needless to say I left the store with my purchase and a big ol’ silly grin on my face – and, given where Apple’s stock price is, it seems like about 4 squillion other people in the world have been doing the same lately. And now, every time I am feeling really stupid – which, in China, is far too often – I can feel the siren’s call of the Apple Store. I have a feeling that, if I was able to treat others with the same grace and joy of discovery that I have experienced there, my stock price would skyrocket too.