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It is a cold and windy morning. Roy arrives at the Apple Store at 5:00 am, hoping against hope that he’ll be the first person in the queue. But more than 25 iPad fanatics already standing patiently in line vanquish his dreams as soon as he turns onto Washington DC’s Wisconsin Avenue, where the city’s Apple store is located. Later, he learns that the first person in the queue arrived at 1 o’clock in the morning.

Of course, such fanaticism is hardly unusual when it come to Apple products. But it is another thing to witness the amazing dedication of Apple consumers firsthand.

Roy is not the only person who waited in line for over five hours that day, only to hear that the coveted second-generation iPads had been sold out to the people ahead of him. This happened because Apple stores, according to policy, sell a maximum of two iPads per customer.

This is probably part of a larger, and very fascinating, scheme to handle Apple-hungry fans. When you’re standing in line for hours and hours, you get to observe the minutiae of the behaviour of store employees and Apple fanatics — and this is how it goes.

All genuine or sham customers (more on this breed later) queue up outside the stores many, many hours before the official opening hour, usually 9:00 am.  At 7:30 am, a couple of sales reps appear to announce the specific models they have in stock and will sell that day. At 8:30 am they make their second appearance — this time with a pack of coupons.

Now, these coupons are a whole story unto themselves. In a scene that conjures up visions of Soviet–era food rationing, Apple reps start distributing the coupons starting from the first person in the queue while the rest wait and look on with pounding hearts. The sales reps do not demand any money or identification in exchange for the coupons. Anyone in the queue can get two coupons upon his/her turn.

“If you’re among the first 25 people in the queue, you have a good chance of getting one [iPad]. But you probably won’t get the model you want,” comments Roy, once again counting the number of people ahead of him.

Gossip is the preferred way to pass time in the queue, and rumours about who will get what are rife. Chris, another iPad fan, has a different but rather superficial formula to gauge his prospects. He believes anyone in the “safe zone” — a 20-metre red-brick walkway near the Apple Store — will get the iPad.

The queue comprises people of every age. A woman in her late fifties rocks back and forth patiently, she wants the iPad for her daughter. But she’s way back in the queue, and I doubt she’ll get her hands on it. Senior citizens do not enjoy any special privileges outside Apple stores, it seems.

As for me, I arrived at the store at around 5:00 am and got the 23rd place. By the time Apple sales reps start distributing coupons, I have more than 60 people waiting behind me.

It’s a long and monotonous wait on a chilly DC morning. The icy wind freezes the tips of our noses and earlobes. Everyone is wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing. Some people have laptops and smart phones to play with. Some are reading books. A few have brought their own folding chairs. A guy covering himself with a brown blanket is taking a nap. A bunch of Chinese guys who are standing way ahead in the queue look excited, and seem to be carrying out their own spy mission. One of them is assigned to move around and bring the rest of the group members latest updates from the queue. Indifferent of what is going on outside, a security guard inside the store is playing with his own cell phone.

Sometime soon after the sun comes up, I notice that a puffy-faced man with a big nose is among the first five customers in the queue. “Bloody hell, here he is again,” says a young man standing near me, referring to the man with the big nose. “I don’t like him. He was in the front yesterday too. He’s a scalper.”

The young man then proceeded to tell me the story of how he had failed to procure an iPad the previous day. According to him, the couple of black (African-American for the politically correct) guys standing somewhere at the 10th spot were homeless people. Each of them would get two coupons and sell them to latecomers at a high price. “That (puffy-faced) man and his girlfriend got four coupons yesterday and sold, like, at least three. He was asking for $100 for each coupon,” the young man reveals.

Earning $300 in five hours seems pretty decent. Who knew how many times the puffy-faced man would try his luck again? And he was certainly not the only sham customer creating that tiny short-term black market: There are two kinds of sham customers — scalpers and those who just keep your place. The scalpers buy the product to sell later at inflated prices. The homeless people who wait in line just sell the coupons to latecomers.

At 7:00 am several customers leave the queue, and I think they were disheartened or had lost the energy to wait. I was wrong — turns out they just wanted coffee from the Starbucks down the road which had just opened its doors. But before leaving, they made sure to install someone to guard their spots in their absence.

Nearly one month after its launch, the gap between the demand for and supply of the iPad-2 is getting slimmer. The magic tablet was launched in America on March 11. The scenes outside Apple stores then were reminiscent of those in April 2010 when the first generation iPad hit the market.

March 11 was an interesting day in the West Coast city of San Francisco. Apple CEO Steve Jobs made his first public appearance after two months to unveil the tablet — Jobs had stepped away from Apple in January to take an indefinite medical leave. “We’ve been working on this product for a while, and I didn’t want to miss it,” Jobs said at the outset of his speech.

Interestingly, Apple retained the prices of 2010’s iPad. The Wi-Fi versions start at $499 for a 16 GB model and climb to $699 for a 64 GB configuration, while the 3G iPads are priced from $629 to $829. The new iPad is slimmer, lighter, faster and brighter than its older brother. It includes a new dual-core processor and a pair of cameras.

The first iPad, which went on sale a year ago, sold 500,000 units in the first week and crossed the 1 million unit mark in 28 days. Nearly 15 million iPads were sold in nine months in 2010, two or three times as many as analysts had predicted. Analysts expect the company to sell 30 million or more this year, generating close to $20 billion in sales, even as other companies launch their own devices. Steve Jobs said the company was “working hard to build enough iPads for everyone” as the company struggled to meet US demand. Despite Jobs’ assurance, the first month after the launch happens to be nightmarish for customers.

Coming back to that little store in DC — it is now 7:30 am and is just about time for Apple’s sales rep to come out to give a quick update about the availability of iPad-2 models. Early birds will certainly get the model of their choice. Latecomers will either strike deals with scalpers or go back home empty handed. Finally, dressed in official blue t-shirts and khaki trousers, the sales representatives appears and announces they have iPads of five different specifications out of a total of nine. They will now finally come out with coupons at 8:30 am.

By this time, the guy behind me was busy assuring himself that he’d get one. He wanted a 32 GB iPad. Right in front of the Apple store a street sign read ‘Prospect-3200’. “I am not a superstitious person, but look at the street’s name. Prospect 3200,” he jokes.

Finally, the wait ends. At 8:30 am the sales reps appear again. All eyes are fixed on that pack of coupons. The reps distribute the coupons within 20 minutes, and true to Roy’s predictions, a man standing at 26th place is the last one to receive a coupon. The puffy-faced man gets two coupons, his girlfriend gets two coupons and the two homeless people get two coupons each. As it turns out, the guy behind me doesn’t have great prospects. When his turn comes, only 16 GB iPads are available. But he quickly takes the coupon anyway, saying even 16 GB is enough memory for him.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 1st, 2011

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