Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Apple Store and a Hotdog Stand

Today was the third major opening of a new or expanded mall in Dresden in the past 18 months. Somehow the economy around here seems to be booming. Against my better judgment I popped on over early in the day in hopes that I could beat the crowd and see if there were any interesting new stores.

As a family with four children, we were happy to see a Build a Bear store. Then again, that is just one more thing that will lose its magic now that we have one. There is something special about a thing when you can’t have it. Oh well.

The more interesting opening was the new Apple Store. Whereas everyone else had merely opened their doors for the first time and hoped that customers would check them out, Apple did everything possible to generate buzz. They surrounded the store with velvet ropes, creating a line weaving back and forth to get in. They stationed security guards diverting all traffic in their area of the mall—you either got in line or you had to basically leave. Then, to top it all off, they had the entrance to the store staffed with about 20 employees cheering and whooping every customer as they reached the end of the line and entered the store. It was attention grabbing, it was interesting, and it had its intended effect.

However, it was also thought provoking. Their intent was clear: generate interest, make people feel something special, and create a connection with the customer. Apple has done a great job associating their brand with an image and a feeling. People buy the product in part because they buy into an image. In the end, though, one wonders how effective this approach will be in the German culture. Apple’s success here is due to the product and quality, not the relationship.

Further along the mall I happened upon a stand that represented the second branch of Ricc’s Original Hotdogs. Their first location is a little hole-in-the-wall in my favorite part of town. The owner was in his stand, and as he saw me we recognized each other and shook hands. I congratulated him on his second store, and we had a true moment of connection. Sure it was not the 100s of customers an hour that Apple was generating, but every one of them was emerging empty handed after looking around for a few minutes.

In the world of community building, we have bought into the Apple model. We need to generate buzz and create a huge attraction. We want volume over depth. The fact is that the slower, smaller approach to real relationships—a true connection despite all the time and effort it requires—is the true road to authentic community. It all boils down to the choice: are we about selling a product or sharing life?

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