Thursday, March 3, 2011

Verizon, AT&T, Best Buy, Walmart retail store personnel completely in the dark concerning iPad 2 and iOS 4.3

I did a bit of personal research today, visiting my local Verizon, AT&T, Best Buy and Walmart stores to see if I could some basic answers concerning their plans to roll out the iPad 2 and to prepare for iOS 4.3. Not surprisingly, very few retail store employees knew much, if anything, of value.

This doesn't surprise me, after all, Apple is notoriously secretive, to point of clinical paranoia. But there were a couple questions I thought I might get answers to: one, how much is it going to cost me to use the new Personal Hotspot feature found in iOS 4.3 (answer, "what Personal Hotspot" feature?); and two, what has store management told you about the roll out of the iPad 2 (answer, "I don't think my manager knows much more than I do, which is nothing").
The most knowledgable retail store employees were to be found at Best Buy (I did not go to an Apple store). Just a year or so ago, I used to have to worst experiences with Apple products at Best Buy. Worse, I just couldn't figure out why Apple kept Best Buy as a retail partner.

But the situation is much improved. A dedicated Apple person is now on staff, and this has dramatically raised the level of produce knowledge throughout the store. I know longer hear, for instance, that if you buy a Mac you'll need to buy special sound speakers direct from Apple because Macs don't come with the normal sound out hardware. (I once heard a sales person tell a customer that if they buy an iMac they would have to buy a PC desktop to go along with it because the iMac is only a display and keyboard accessory.)

The Best Buy team was pretty knowledgable about what Apple had announced. They knew the new models and figured to get their shipment of iPads late Thursday night or first thing Friday (March 11).

Apple's innovative new cover for the iPad 2

The Verizon folk were completely in the dark. This may have been because this is all so new to them. The whole iPad sales scheme is strange at Verizon anyway. Since the original iPad didn't come with the CDMA channel access necessary to work on Verizon's network, the retail stores have been forced to sell WiFi only models combined with Verizon's own MiFi. They will also just sell you the WiFi iPad without MiFi, so in the end, the options all cost the same as at the Apple or AT&T stores -- it just seems weird.

But now Verizon is getting its own iPad 2s with 3G, but I certainly wouldn't have learned that at the store. When I informed the Verizon staffer, then proved it by going to the Apple website, he was pretty excited. "No wonder we haven't been getting any MiFi shipments lately. We are always having to read the tea leaves around here."

Of course, there is a reason retail management likes to keep their employees in the dark: it helps them sell the inventory currently found on the floor. How do you sell a first generation iPad knowing that iPad 2 is just eight days away? Easy, don't tell 'em.

But buyers of Apple products tend to me pretty knowledgable -- or they used to be before Apple became the seller of incredibly popular consumer products. But all the cell phone stores I visited were pretty empty today, maybe it was the timing. Or maybe it was because buyers know to wait a week.

The exception to the rule was the Sprint store. I walked in there because it has been years since I've been a Sprint customer. I used to use Sprint before Apple forced my hand by introducing the iPhone. Strangely, the Sprint store looked it hadn't changed much since 2007 -- no tablets on display, some Android phones, but some old fashioned looked flip phones, as well. The place had been frozen in time.

For me, what I discovered was a bit shocking simply because I would expected the retail staffs at the carrier stores to be better managed than this. Whatever happened to the early morning stand up meeting before the doors open? What all this means, though, is that the carriers are dropping the ball when it comes to expanding their technology sales. Selling iPads, as well as the Motorola XOOM and other tablets should be a new opportunity to grow revenue (at one store the only XOOM was left uncharged in a drawer).

For some reason this reminds me of the line in Field of Dreams: the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson comes out of the cornfield and plays some ball with Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner). After hitting the ball around a little Joe Jackson asks Kinsella "what's with the lights?"

"All the stadiums have them now," Kinsella says. "Even Wrigley Field."

"It's harder to see the ball," Jackson replies.

"The owners found that more people can attend night games," Kinsella explains.

"Owners," Jackson says with disgust.

Substitute the word "carriers" and you know how I feel.