Apple’s Darwinian Queues

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

The Economist describes the insane hours-long iPhone 4 lines in the blazing summer heat:

The queue are resigned and grumpy. Man-from-Norway says he can’t understand why it is so badly organised. “They know how many people have reservations, they know how many people they can process in an hour, why can’t they just tell us when to come?” He has a point. You would think, wouldn’t you, that for a company that can design and build a cutting-edge mobile phone, one that Changes everything. Again. that it might be able to figure out how to serve a known number of customers without any one of them having to wait for ten hours. “How do you pee?” I ask the woman next to Man-from-Norway. “You don’t,” she says with a grimace, “and I need to go.”

And it’s all very Darwinian. There is nobody old, obviously pregnant or infirm in the queue. Just fit young customers able to slug it out on their feet all day, with bladders like leather sacks. All Apple would need to do would be to organise them to come back at times of the day when they could serve them, or on another day. It wouldn’t be rocket science. I could do better.

Which makes me think that Apple must not want to. Because if it did, there would be no queue round the corner. Nothing for the television networks to film for the evening news and for the passers-by to marvel at. Apple’s Darwinian queues of the young and the fit are the best advertising that it can have. All these people are unpaid actors in Apple’s advertising machine, showing the world how badly some people want an iPhone. All to make them wonder whether, maybe, they might need one too. It is hard to know which other company would be allowed get away with treating customers it has agreed to serve so badly. I’ll buy a new iPhone when I can find a civilised way of doing so. But I’m afraid the magic of Apple just died for me today.


  1. All you need is a convenient wolf pack to pick off stragglers and you’d have a nice Darwin sandwich.

  2. Buckethead says:

    The lines at Fair Oaks Mall in VA were both better and worse. Better in that the lines were inside an air conditioned Mall. Worse in that they lasted longer than anywhere else I heard of.

    I was there because Apple and ATT first screwed up the pre-order process last week. I thought that with a reservation, I could get my phone in the morning. I waited until 1:00 to find that my reservation didn’t actually exist. They told me then that my wait time in the unreserved line would be about two hours.

    So, okay. I’ll wait a little longer. We couldn’t tell from where we were, but that was a flat out lie. At the rate they were processing people, there’s no way on Earth they would have got to us in two hours. They were favoring people in the reserved line 4 to 1 over the unreserved — and this despite the fact that people in the other line had been there on average an hour, hour and a half while some of the people in the unreserved line had been there for 8 or more.

    The whole thing was tragically mismanaged. Apple employees were dismissive of the complaints, and there was a gap between the morning rush and the arrival of people with reservations coming in after work when the backlog of people who had been there since morning could have been cleared out.

    They have to activate every phone — which means that rather than swiping a credit card and handing the customer a box, they have to spend fifteen or minutes going through that process, and then trying to convince the customer to buy insurance, MobileMe, etc. That made every thing take an order of magnitude longer.

    Several of us stuck it out, almost out of a perverse desire to see how long it would take. It took a long time. But, I bought two, and should be able to sell the second for a handy profit — though the per hour rate is lower than I would have hoped.

    Happily, there were no wolves at Fair Oaks Mall.

  3. Isegoria says:

    I was shocked last time, when we finally got to the front of the 3GS line, and the “helpful” sales girl took her sweet time walking us around the store, trying to chat with us about the phone, failing to up-sell us on a variety of things, etc. The long, painful wait in line was no accident.

  4. Buckethead says:

    No, not an accident, but from what I’ve heard other stores in the area cleared out their lines a lot quicker than Fair Oaks did. The wait here seemed completely in excess of the results of upselling, activation, and high demand we saw elsewhere.

    Of course, it creates great free advertising for Apple.

  5. Kent says:

    As a day 1 adopter of the 4G, I was stunned at how long it took given that I had a reservation. After waiting about 90 minutes, like Buckethead, I developed a perverse desire just to know how long it would take. The answer: about 4.5 hours! When I finally got to the front, I didn’t want the sales droid to tell me how much Apple appreciated my business; I just wanted him to activate my G.D. phone as quickly as possible.

  6. Buckethead says:

    Kent, you got lucky. Or I got stupid. I waited over ten hours.

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