Are Walmart and Apple Customers Ready for Each Other?

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walmart ipad.jpg

"Are you getting the iPad in tomorrow?" I asked the Walmart electronics rep in Landover Hills, Maryland.
"The iPad?" the rep asked.
"Yeah, the Apple iPad," I said.
"Do you want the iPad or the iPad," I heard her say.
"Uh, the iPad," I said.
"Do you want the I-P-O-D or the I-P-A-D?" she responded.
"The iPad. I mean, the iPad. I-P-A-D," I said.
"No, we don't have that," she replied.
"Are you getting it in on Friday."
"Nope, only the I-P-O-D."

That was the best customer service experience I had searching the Washington, D.C.-area for the iPads that will hit some Walmart shelves come Friday.

Other locations bounced me around their phone systems for ten or fifteen minutes before hanging up on me. Other operators sent me to the electronics department where the phone rang eternal. One store in Laurel, Maryland hung me up three times before the lady at the switchboard explained, "I'm in the middle of a Code Adam, that's probably why it disconnected you." A Code Adam, Wikipedia told me, is when there is a child missing in a store. Yikes. Another store rep asked me to call a different number because he couldn't forward me to electronics. I called back on the new number and was routed right back to the same guy.

All that to say, Walmart sure isn't the Apple Store.

The Apple Store is one of the most pleasant retail experiences ever created. The stores are nicely designed. The products are on display and always usable. Better yet, the employees know what they're talking about and seem trained to act like normal human beings instead of human bots. You get used to a nice experience buying Apple products, and it becomes part of how you think about the brand, even if you know that it's just a damn store like all the other ones selling you stuff.

It's one thing to buy deli meat or a rake from Walmart. That's cheap stuff that doesn't require a lot of handholding or knowledge to sell. But a $500 purchase is substantial. Before dropping that kind of cash, you might want to talk to someone who knows what the iPad can do and can explain it. In fact, it might be precisely the subset of new Apple customers who would purchase their device at Walmart who need some convincing.

Maybe the iPad sells itself, but if it doesn't, don't count on Walmart clerks systematically helping out.

One other note. We checked with the five closest Walmarts to D.C. and none of them will be selling the iPad tomorrow. The store in Hanover, Maryland has them in stock already, but won't be selling them until the 22nd of October. That implies a smooth phased roll-out as the weeks go by.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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