Apple Watch brings the bling in retail debut

Trying to show it's more than a utilitarian electronic object, the Apple Watch arrives in high-end stores surrounded by luxury brands. But you can't walk out with one until April 24.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Kent German
10 min read

A prospective customer tries an Apple Watch during a one-on-one fitting appointment at the Galeries Lafayette, a high-end Parisian department store.
A prospective customer tries an Apple Watch during a one-on-one fitting appointment at the Galeries Lafayette, a high-end Parisian department store. Stephen Shankland/CNET

PARIS, LONDON, NEW YORK and PALO ALTO -- With Friday's Apple Watch retail debut, Apple took some of its own "think different" advice.

Apple Stores have always been polished, but the Apple Watch takes the upscale approach to another level by nestling the smartwatch among luxury brands such as Yves St. Laurent, Louis Vuitton and Bulgari. And each customer who wants to try one on must sign up for a guided tour of the Apple Watch from a dedicated salesperson.

The experience is night and day compared to roaming the aisles of Best Buy looking for the cheapest HDMI cable for your TV. And given how different the Apple Watch is from earlier products and how important it is to Apple's reputation, the high-touch sales approach is probably necessary.

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The Apple Watch is the first new product category since the company radically transformed computing with the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010. The watch brings now-familiar technologies like a touchscreen and apps to your wrist, but to succeed, Apple must convince buyers to spend anywhere from $350 to $17,000 in the US on a device that they might consider an optional accessory.

It's that extraordinary range of prices where Apple hopes to stand out from the an already crowded field of smartwatches from the likes of Samsung, LG, Motorola and Sony. Apple's rivals have presented their watches as accessories to their core smartphones and flashy new gadgets in their own right, but few have won mainstream success.

Core to Apple's sales pitch is the idea that the Watch isn't just a utilitarian gadget. Instead, the company is hoping to convince buyers that the Apple Watch has the cachet of timepieces that often serve as fashion statements and jewelry.

"It has to be a tool or it has to be bling-bling -- or both," said Herve Beraud, a Parisian standing amid a crowded Apple Watch display squarely in the center of the city's Apple Store.

Customers can't actually walk out of the store with an Apple Watch -- today marks the first day you can preorder one, but you can't actually walk out of the store with one until its official launch day on April 24. Apple's latest gadget is already off to a hot start in its own online store -- some of the models won't ship until August.

21st-century tech, 19th-century ambiance

In Paris, the Apple Watch is on sale in the swanky Galeries Lafayette department store, where tourists come to shop for expensive coats and high-end handbags. The watches occupy the best real estate in the house, four bays beneath the architecturally iconic Belle Epoque central atrium.

The Apple Watch display at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris occupied prime retail territory: four bays beneath the building's glass atrium.
The Apple Watch display at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris occupied prime retail territory: four bays beneath the building's glass atrium. Stephen Shanklannd/CNET

Apple's own store isn't so lavish. But there, too, customers with appointments got their one-on-one product tours. Those without an appointment were in principle limited to looking at the array of watches under glass, but more than one customer ducked in to try a display model, too.

Curious customers were eager to see and to try out the watches, but many weren't yet convinced they were worth buying.

"When a new product is out, I'm always wanting to see it," said Philippe Li, who already owns a Samsung smartwatch he bought in 2014. But he won't buy a first-generation Apple Watch, which he expects to be "a little bit buggy."

In contrast, Hermann Angoula, who has owned iPhones since the first model arrived in 2007, is already committed. He bought a leather-banded Apple Watch for €799 (US$857) before even going to the store. For him, too, firsthand experience reveals more than the online videos, though, because he's now having doubts about choosing a premium version. The lower-end Sport model is impressive and costs €399 here; the Apple Watch is twice the price. "I don't think that it's worth the difference," he said.

One of the first appointments in Paris went to Celine Luong. "I want to see it on my wrist and touch it and try it," she said. She's not sure she'll buy one, but if she does, it'll be the 38mm Sport model.

Cooper Matson, a Seattle resident visiting Paris, wanted to check out the watch after seeing the display area while still cloaked the day before. But he said he can't afford even the entry-level model, much less a $10,000 Apple Watch Edition. "There are necklaces that cost that amount, so I guess it's not that crazy," he said.

In San Francisco's Stockton Street Apple store, one of the first in line was Michael Agustin, a co-founder of six-person startup called Weaver in the process of developing a communications app for watch. Though he thinks the Apple Watch has room to improve -- he and his startup co-founders particularly don't like the emoji interface, he said -- Agustin thinks Apple arrived at the right time.

"That's the exciting part: this gives you a preview of what's coming in the future," he said, noting the device could replace your wallet, phone and keys. Agustin and his team ordered six of the 42mm stainless steel models shortly after midnight the night before.

An Apple employee at the Covent Garden Apple Store in London applauds as the doors open. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In the Covent Garden Apple store in London, Matthew Hudson had an appointment right when the store opened at 9 a.m. to try on and order the stainless steel model with a 38mm Milanese Loop band -- a 21st birthday gift from his parents.

"I want it for keeping track of everything," he said. "Me and my parents are all-Apple people, and I wanted one right away."

Richard Butlin was deciding between the Watch Sport and the standard Watch model. "I like the idea of swapping bands on the Sport, but I also like the design of the Watch," he said, scanning one of the cases with his face just inches from the glass. "I mainly want it because I'm a runner and I want to keep track of my pace; I'm running the Brighton Marathon on Sunday and want to wear it. But I also want it for the notifications for weather, my emails...everything."

One Apple fan who isn't getting one right away: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who said in an email that he was too busy traveling to make a fitting, but wasn't sure he was going to buy one.

"Some people know instantly that the watch is for them," he said. "Some are Apple fanatics and some want to try the experience (I've had smartwatches before, with negative results). Some want a luxury fitness band. But I don't fit into any 'need' category well."

A guided tour

During their Galeries Lafayette appointments, a salesperson lets customers use a stand-mounted watch -- the larger 42mm model, not the less expensive 38mm alternative. As customers try actions like sending picture messages, using a "force touch" press to customize the watch face, checking fitness activity and switching among apps, a linked display on the stand offers more information about what's going on.

A customer at the Covent Garden Apple store in London gets his fitting for an Apple Watch. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Then, with a bit of dramatic flair, the salesperson unlocks a drawer to reveal an array of choices -- the aluminum-housing Apple Watch Sport models that are least expensive, the Apple Watch models that step up with a stainless steel housing and sapphire display cover, and the premium gold Apple Watch Edition models that start at $10,000.

Apple encourages customers to try on two or three models, but none of them are interactive. They just run through demonstrations of the apps and features, including the "taptic" feedback buzzing that can signal an incoming message.

That vibration is emblematic of the more intimate contact a watch has with its owner, compared to a smartphone, tablet or PC.

At Apple's Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan, Rory Berger, a 33-year-old investment banker, purchased a steel Apple Watch with a Milanese band for about $700 -- a gift from his mother - the night before and came to the store in the morning to test it out.

Manhattan resident Rory Berger, right, tries on an Apple Watch at the company's Fifth Avenue store in New York. Sarah Tew/CNET

After trying on different bands and talking to an Apple representative, Berger said he was pleased with the purchase. "It felt good on my wrist," he said. "Look forward to playing with it."

He removed an Apple Watch from his wrist and put back on a Rolex his father gave him four years ago after he graduated business school. The new smartwatch, he said, would likely replace that Rolex for day-to-day use, but he'd still wear the Rolex for special occasions.

"I think he'd be OK with it," Berger said, when asked if his dad would be upset the Rolex was getting replaced, saying his father was an Apple marketing executive in the 1980s when he bought the Rolex. "In a way, it's sort of fitting."

Not everyone was convinced from the fitting process. Victor Kahn, a 59-year-old former Parisian now doing business development in San Francisco, says he was up at 1 a.m. to get a 9:45 a.m. appointment at the city's Stockton Street store. But ultimately, he remains on the fence after going through the process.

"I wanted to check it out first. The size was definitely an issue," he said of deciding between 38mm and 42mm models. Kahn says he was also there to check out Apple's new retail experience. "Not the best. It was not so much about the product, but the experience."

Kahn says the one thing Apple employee didn't tell him may be the most important: Why he would need an Apple Watch anyway. "I'm not sure I get it."

A few fans on hand

Some Apple enthusiasts were on hand to witness the arrival, but the tone of the event was much different from iPhone launches, with their lines around the block. Unlike iPhone and iPad launches, Apple required appointments and only put the watch on display. The first Apple Watches won't arrive in customers' hands until April 24.

When the Covent Garden store opened its doors, employees began cheering at the door like any major Apple product launch. But only five people walked in initially, with more trickling in. Before the store opened, the people were asked to sign up for a fitting. An employee later said the store had plenty of appointments all day.

Over at Selfridges department store in London, there were as many journalists as customers. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

At the famed Selfridges store in London's main shopping district, the crowd around the store was a bit busier, but there were as many employees as customers. It was unclear whether the spectators were just gawkers or intended to buy a Watch.

At Apple's Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan, a small line of a few dozen customers stood in the gray, drizzly weather before the store's iconic glass cube entryway to test out the Apple Watch. The number of people outside was just a fraction of the massive crowds that wait outside this store for days before a new iPhone launches.

It was a quiet scene, too, early on at the Apple Store on University Ave. in Palo Alto, Calif., hard by the company's home turf of Cupertino, though as the morning wore on an increasing number of people were milling about, curious to see the devices. Meanwhile, all the fitting times for the Apple Watch Edition were filled up there and at the Apple store in downtown San Francisco.

Apple CEO Tim Cook put in an appearance at the Palo Alto store at about 11 a.m. PT, appearing cheerful and relaxed in blue jeans and a black T-shirt, and taking time to pose for photos with customers visiting the store but didn't linger for long. Cook appeared to be wearing the stainless steel Apple Watch with a white sports band.

John Koncoli, one of the first people at the Palo Alto store, wanted to check out the device but didn't have plans to buy one (or upgrade his years-old iPhone 4). "I love Apple," said Koncoli, who works with people with developmental disabilities. "But I don't know too much about" the Apple Watch, he said.

Apple CEO Tim Cook clearly enjoyed the moment as he stopped by the Apple Store in Palo Alto, Calif., amid Apple Watch shoppers. Mariel Myers/CNET

Jeff Kell, a Mountain View, Calif.- based entrepreneur who operates a business to help elderly people digitize their lives, planned to buy Apple Watch but wanted to try on the various bands and models before ordering. He signed up online for a fitting to help make up his mind.

"The whole process is interesting," Kell said. "I normally would have waited in line, but this all feels very civilized."

He added that the long wait times to receive the Apple Watch so soon after preorders began was disappointing. "I feel like I've been waiting already for three months," he said.

There also was some confusion about whether the device was actually available to take home Friday. Julie Mickelson stopped by the store to purchase Apple Watch but didn't want to take the time out of her workday for a fitting.

"I just wanted to buy it," Mickelson said. "I'm just going to order it online."

Sizing it all up

But she quickly ran into problems ordering online -- namely, how to figure out which size band to order. The measurements are included in millimeters, but the sizing isn't consistent. A large modern buckle band, for instance, is about the same size as a small to medium-size sports band. "In the US, we still use inches," Mickelson told CNET in a follow-up email. "So I have no tools to measure my wrist."

In New York, blue-shirted workers cheered on the first wave of customers as they entered.

Kevin Lupercio, a 16-year-old student from Queens, N.Y., said he quickly preordered a $600 steel Apple Watch with a black sports band after trying it on Friday, explaining that he's most excited to use its fitness applications.

"It felt really perfect to me," he said. "I knew I had to get it."

Lupercio said he works weekends at his parents' food truck, so he'd be able to make enough money that way to buy the smartwatch. "Once I tried it on, it felt wonderful, so it was definitely worth it," he added.

Customers file into Apple's Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan. Sarah Tew / CNET

After a burst of activity right as the store opened, many of the first round of customers departed about an hour later, leaving mostly media roaming the lines of long tables holding Apple Watches.

Outside the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Apple built a queuing area out of movable barriers, but only four people were lined up. Apple clearly braced itself for heavy interest, with dozens of blue-shirted staff in the Apple Store on hand and abundant security personnel.

Paris customer Luong, who's working on an app for doctors that lets their patients report pain levels using their phones, was one of the people in that line. She wants to see if she can extend her app to the Apple Watch.

"I'd like to buy one," she said. "For me, it's the future of the watch."

Wozniak, who is often a first-day buyer of Apple products, was cooler on the Apple Watch.

"I'm not as excited as about most Apple products," he said. "This one just isn't for me maybe."

Connie Guglielmo, Shara Tibken and Nick Statt contributed to this story.

Updated throughout the day: To include details about the launches in New York, London and Palo Alto, as well as comments from Steve Wozniak.