At one end of the 40-foot maple counter, a cherub-faced Genius in a black T-shirt spoke soothingly to a middle-aged customer whosekept erasing songs. After a few minutes of probing, the Genius announced his diagnosis: the firmware needed updating. Then he showed the man how to do it.
At the other end of the bar, another amiable Genius--Apple's term for its in-store technical support staff--greeted a couple who had arrived with an ailing PowerBook. "Hey, what's going on?" he said, and got down to work.
In an age when human help of any kind is hard to come by, the eight or nine Geniuses on duty at any given time here are a welcome anomaly.
In fact, go to any of the 102 Apple-owned retail stores in the world and--if you are willing to wait--you will be treated to what is an increasingly rare service: free face-to-face technical support.
The walk-up assistance has existed since the first Apple Store opened in 2001, in Washington. Over the years, as the concept gained momentum, the bars have become what Ron Johnson, Apple's senior vice president for retailing, calls the soul of the stores.
"It's the part of the store that people connect to emotionally more than any other," Johnson said.
For the first few years, there was general mayhem around the Genius Bars. Customers would stand four or five deep, broken gadgets in hand, waiting to speak to an expert. Now there is an online system for scheduling free, same-day appointments. And for $100 a year, customers can schedule appointments up to a week in advance with the expert of their choice.
But there can still be long waits. Just after Christmas, for instance, at the Apple Store in SoHo in New York, by 10 a.m. the earliest appointment that could be had was at 4 p.m. People left and came back, or sat for hours, reading, talking on their cell phones or milling about the store.
The San Francisco store, like all the others, has instituted a pager system for those who show up when all the experts are busy, like the man on this day who lugged his iMac to the bar, hoisted over his shoulder like a recalcitrant child. He took a pager and joined a dozen or so others waiting for help.
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The concept of a bar came to Johnson one night when he was thinking about the kind of environment Apple wanted to create in its stores. He said he was inspired by Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton and other hotels where service is paramount.
"We believed you had to bring the people dimension back into retail," said Johnson, who joined Apple five years ago after 15 years at Target. "We thought, What about giving tech support that's as welcoming as the bar at the Ritz?"
Tim Bajarin, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, a high-tech consulting company in Campbell, Calif., said Apple's strategy was sound. "It's all part of a sales process," he said. "They have these guys who are extremely articulate answering customers' questions, which is key not only to the sales process, but the support afterwards."
Other computer retail stores have technical support counters, too. A few, like CompUSA and Best Buy, even have traveling teams of tech support staff who make house calls. But those services are not