It’s a tradition as storied as the iPhone is shiny: as soon as the CEO of Apple gets up on stage and announces the latest iDevice, a few people with spare weeks of time but also the disposable income to spend $800 on a phone get in line to buy one.
Over the next two weeks, they’re joined by and trickle and then a rush of future iPhone owners, until at 5AM on launch day, 5th Avenue looks like a gentrified refugee camp with more TV cameras.
But not this year.
Sure, people still lined up. But fewer than last year, and mostly because Apple quietly (but publicly) changed its policies. There were no iPhone 7 Plus devices available for walk-in customers, and no Jet Black iPhone 7s of any kind available in-store either. Breaking a tradition stretching back years, Apple reserved zero stock for the people who are, by definition, its most loyal customers.
Instead of fanning the flames of its own fan club, Apple instead chose to do something sensible and grown-up, namely allow for online pre-orders to be picked up in store. That’s how I got my hands on an iPhone 7 this morning — no waiting in line, just wander up to an Apple employee, scan a barcode, and walk away with the new phone. It was so easy that I felt genuinely guilty walking past the line of people who had slept out overnight.
iPhone 7 lines down 23% on avg vs iPhone 6S lines last year. 5th Avenue store down 38% y/y (via PJC) @SquawkAlley pic.twitter.com/VaIKesSqzQ
— Sally Shin 신상희 (@sallyshin) September 16, 2016
Just by the numbers, the Apple Store lineups are down this year, and Apple is helping out. Remember the photos from previous years of cheering Apple employees applauding as people stormed in to hand over their money? This year, Apple employees were quietly handing out gift cards to disappointed queuers, no fanfare wanted.
I’ve always thought that the launch day lines were the easiest, best piece of marketing Apple gets all year. With zero effort on the company’s part, it gets to show off to the world how much its fans care about a phone.
So sure, Apple isn’t making a concerted effort to kill off the lines. No bouncers or explicit warnings, that’s for sure. But by failing to reserve even a token amount of stock for walk-ins, and making a far more convenient collect-in-store system instead, Apple is tilting the balance in favor of staying at home on launch day. The question is, why?