Laying siege to iPhone stores

The Baltimore Sun

Mario Armstrong knows exactly where he will be at 5:50 p.m. tomorrow - perched in a lawn chair outside an AT&T; store north of Towson with a supply of food and water and a Mac PowerBook on his lap, fired up and ready to go.

His mother in Towson and brother in Washington will be manning their home computers, poised to click on "confirm purchase" when the clock ticks 6 - the witching hour for one of the most anticipated and hyped technology launches ever, Apple Inc.'s iPhone.

It's all part of the 34-year-old Perry Hall resident's fail-safe plan to make sure he's among the first buyers of the sleek - and pricey - cell phone-Web browser-iPod hybrid.

"I don't care if I'm first in line," said Armstrong, host of Digital Cafe on Baltimore's WYPR-88.1 FM public radio station. "It's 5:50 p.m. If the store says we only have five iPhones, I'm on my laptop and my window is open to the Apple store on Apple.com. I'm constantly refreshing the page to purchase my iPhone."

Armstrong, who planned to start his 24-hour camp-out tonight at 6, is among the hordes of Apple fanatics and early adopters mapping out tactics, weighing the pros and cons of swiping their credit cards at either an Apple retail store or an AT&T; Inc. outlet.

Building on the success of the iPod, Apple has kept tight control over the iPhone's debut, dribbling out details to maximize anticipation. Supplies are expected to be tight despite its price tag - $499 for a four-gigabyte version and $599 for a five-gigabyte model. It also requires a two-year AT&T; service plan.

Smart marketing and frenzied demand don't guarantee a product's long-term success.

When the high-end Sony PlayStation 3 was released in November, reserved units started selling on eBay at huge markups and some people snapped them up only to cash in on a resale. In the end, Nintendo's Wii gaming system, released two days later, turned out to be the big winner.

But many experts agree that Apple's iconic brand and reputation for coolness add momentum to what the company is billing as a breakthrough product.

Apple store managers, while keeping mum on tomorrow's details, are bracing for a big night.

The stores - including five in Maryland - will close at 2 p.m. tomorrow to get ready and reopen at 6 p.m. local time, with the phones available on a first-come, first-served basis. Apple's online store will also begin taking orders. AT&T; stores will close at 4:30 p.m. and reopen at 6 p.m.

AT&T; has hired 2,000 temporary workers to handle the expected crush stemming from the iPhone.

Scott deGraffenreid, marketing director for Westfield Annapolis, said die-hards intending to sit outside the mall's Apple or AT&T; store will be catered to accordingly.

"We'll make sure they're as comfortable as possible," he said.

Kristi Betz, a public relations representative for Weinberg Harris & Associates who handles corporate communications for General Growth Properties Inc., owner of The Mall in Columbia and Towson Town Center, said customers will be allowed to set up folding chairs outside Apple and AT&T; stores during the day tomorrow, so long as they don't interrupt business or cause safety concerns. "If they plan to camp out, they will have to do it that day," Betz said.

William Hay, an assistant store manager at Towson Town's Apple store, said the retail outlet will stay open until midnight - two hours past the mall's normal 10 p.m. closing time.

Michael Loss, a resident of Churchton who works in automotive parts and sales, said he plans to skip out on the Apple store madness and visit an AT&T; store instead.

"I'm such a fan of Apple," he said. "I've never been this excited about a product. I've been on Mac forums every day."

The 34-year-old native of College Park said he's been calling around to ask about waiting lists and other day-of details at AT&T; and Apple stores.

"They have no idea," he said, noting Apple's secretive methods and airtight promotional strategies.

But as the details fall into place, Loss said he's not optimistic that he'll get his hands on what he wants.

"I'm actually not really confident at all," he said. "I'm just resigning myself to the fact that I'll get there when I get there. I've never been one to camp out for anything."

Armstrong, a veteran of hyped-product camp-outs, has it down to a science.

He plans to bring a change of clothes, a cooler with water, juice, a few cold cuts and some fruit - the chips and pretzels that newbies bring make you too thirsty - as well as an industrial-grade orange power cord to hook up his gaming system, laptop and other electronic devices.

He said he intends to pass the time by either blogging or video gaming.

He's even set up a site to capture the event with photos and video from the line - http:--marioa.squarespace.com/iphone/.

"I also bought a $2.99 disposal grill at Food Lion," he said. "It even comes with charcoal."

Justin Streufert, a 25-year-old resident of Frederick who works at AARP Services in Washington as a Web developer, said he and a friend will be waiting in line on I-Day at a Frederick AT&T; store.

"My theory is that by going to an AT&T; store in a more rural area, we'll have a better opportunity to be close to the front of the line than if we try to purchase them at an Apple store or a more urban AT&T; location," he said.

Amid all the hype and preparation, some marketing pros are marveling at the event as a choice case study. Kathy Sharpe, chief executive of Sharpe Partners, an interactive marketing agency in New York, said she's never owned an Apple product but believes the iPhone's chic and functionality will prove a powerful lure.

"There's something so viscerally appealing about that functionality," she said. "The screen is so crisp. The touching of it. The ability to touch and reach and put things together with just a fingertip is so appealing."

What's more, she said, Apple has been smart in building alliances.

"It has a lot of pillars built around it," she said. "The iPhone has a corporate partnership with Amazon.com Inc., a media partnership with YouTube Inc. and a telecommunications partnership with AT&T.;

"I see the future of this product being pretty strong. I think [Apple CEO Steve Jobs] has put a package around it that's not just the box. It's the content that moves through the box."

stephanie.newton@baltsun.com

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