Culture

Students get run of Apple stores

Aiming to showcase what it can do for schools, Apple is letting students and teachers hold open houses in its retail stores to display schoolwork they have done on a Mac.

Apple Computer is letting a bunch of kids take over its stores.

Aiming to show off what it can do for schools, Apple is letting students and teachers hold open houses in its retail stores to show parents the schoolwork they have done on a Mac.

Apple has set aside every Tuesday and Wednesday through the end of May at each of its 53 stores for "School Night at the Apple Store" program. Parents who buy a Mac at the store during the next month will save $50, plus the school gets a $50 credit toward future Apple purchases.

The move aims to boost Apple's fortunes in the education market and allow the company to make better use of its growing network of retail stores.

At the school nights, which are set to start next week, a teacher will make a brief presentation and then about 10 students will log on to the Macs in the store and show off the projects they have been working on. Apple demonstrated the concept at seven stores this week, drawing as many as 150 parents and teachers at the largest events.

"The key in retailing is to continually improve the store and to find new ways to make it exciting," said Ron Johnson, the former Target Stores executive that runs Apple's retail effort. "This is one way of doing it."

Plus, the education market is seen as critical for Apple. For some time now, Dell Computer has been shipping more computers to schools than has Apple. A new IDC study found that this school year--for the first time--more Dell desktops were in use at U.S. schools than were Apple desktops. However, there are still more Apple notebooks than Dell laptops, according to IDC analyst Ray Boggs.

Apple has tried a number of tactics to better compete in the school market, including developing the eMac, acquiring educational software maker PowerSchool and shifting its executive team.

The Mac maker is now getting more aggressive in its pricing. Apple is offering schools discounts of $200 to $300 off retail prices on its latest machines--the new Power Macs and aluminum-cased PowerBooks. Apple's other models--the eMac, iMac and iBook--have a more typical $50 to $100 discount, according to the price list on Apple's online store for educational institutions. Apple has cut prices even further for large school purchases.

The school night promotion appears to reach outside the school's purchasing department, aiming to also woo teachers, parents and students to advocate for the Mac.

Initially, Apple identified key schools that it wants for the school night program, but the company is also seeking out teachers and parents who would like to include their school--even if it uses more PCs than Macs.

"If a parent wants to sign up a school that is more PC-centric, we'd still love to sign up the school and show what Macs can do," Johnson said.

Ted Maddock, a teacher at Mount Diablo High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, said he drove 75 miles to take part in one of Apple's kickoff events for the program.

"We need to get the kinds of things were doing with kids and technology in front of parents," said Maddock, who teaches in a program called "Digital Safari," which mixes academic instruction with multimedia training.

Boggs said the idea of Apple using its stores to court parents and teachers is a good one. "It's very much the whole idea of retail--reaching individual customers one-on-one," he said. "If there are doubts, the guy on the (store) floor ought to be able to identify them and begin to address them."

Although Apple has been ceding education market share to rivals, Boggs praised several of the company's recent moves, including providing free copies of Mac OS X to teachers.

"That's so smart," Boggs said. "Your out of pocket expenses are so minimal...You want to have this army of little agents operating on your behalf in the classroom."

Apple is not closing the stores to the public during the school events. In fact, Johnson suggested that it may not be bad for business to show what a bunch of grade school kids can do on a Mac.

"Its a very powerful selling tool," Johnson said. He noted that the work students are doing highlights the Mac's ease of use--a key selling point for the machine.

Now that Apple has had many of its stores open a year or more, Johnson said the company is looking at ways to broaden the reach of its retail outlets.

"This is a natural time to say 'What else can our stores do to impact Apple in a meaningful way?'"