Hours before an Apple product launch, the company's "back of house" retail employees dismantle product displays and reassemble them to show off the newly released gadgets instead. These employees, who rarely interact with customers, are usually on hand to facilitate the store’s stock of products and keep display models looking sharp. But in the time leading up to the debut of new products, their role becomes something much more approaching elves working late on Christmas Eve for the big day to come, getting ready out of customer sight.
For Apple, the big day is Friday. That's when it will set its iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus free into the wild, and there are already lines in front of its stores around the world. Energy builds steadily in these lines and is released joyfully when the store opens its doors for business. It's not a shopping day, it's a carnival.
“There’s just something about a launch that makes it unforgettable,” says Kevin Smith, who used to work at an Apple Store in Washington, D.C. before his current gig as deputy editor of Elite Daily. He was in the launch-day trenches of the Apple Store for a number of product releases, setting customers up with the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPad, iPad 2, iPad with Retina display and the iPhone 5 on the same days those products went on sale.
“You get there early to start the day, so our store had breakfast, lunch, coffee, and snacks for us,” Smith said. “Energy is good and positive and [the employees] are just as excited as the customers.” Apple Stores will often have small perks for their employees on launch days, though this varies from one store to another. Out of customer sight at your local store, you might find coffee and donuts set up for those employees who make an early morning start of things on launch day (most of them).
I similarly worked at the company’s flagship Fifth Avenue store for the launch of the iPhone 4 and original iPad (we got bonus pay if we decided to work extra hours on launches). My fellow employees and I didn’t even lay eyes on the new devices until about an hour before they were officially available to consumers. A visiting corporate Apple employee was on hand during iPad day to supervise employees’ play sessions with the tablets before we took to the floor to sell them. Because Apple Store employees are a tech-centric bunch who had already watched the keynote, we already knew how to operate an iPad upside-down and backwards. I remember thinking it strange to be so proficient at using something that basically didn’t exist an hour ago.
Jordan Golson had a comparable experience. Golson is a reporter for Wired and an editor at MacRumors, and he formerly worked at Apple’s Rockingham Park retail store in Salem, New Hampshire. He says that plenty of Apple customers will already know how to use what purports to be a brand-new device, whether it’s the first-generation iPad or the first-generation “big iPhone.” On Apple launch days, you see “a lot of early adopters and uninformed moms with their kids who were early adopters. Almost everyone wanted to open their own boxes [on a launch day] and it was a quiet day after the stock sold out!”
Launch day has a very specific feeling attached to it, depending on which side of the cash register you’re standing on. Golson says that “for the customers, it’s all Christmas morning. For the staff, it's ‘Oh God, when will it be over?’ mixed with ‘Oh man, it's here!’”
As I worked for one of Apple’s more famous stores, the “Oh man, it’s here!” feeling can’t really be overstated. Not only do you show up to work with a line of customers around the block waiting to get in after you, but you know that a number of decisions well above your pay grade have been made and carried out while you were asleep. It’s mysterious and enticing, even with your privileged vantage point from the inside looking out.
There are cheers when the doors open, and applause for quite a while as the first batch of line-sitters get their long-awaited devices. Employees are on hand pretty much to ring customers up for however many of the new products they want before helping the next customer with exactly the same task. It's an assembly line of sorts, but with positive human interaction sprinkled liberally throughout. No one's unhappy -- it's launch day!
“Retail is retail," Golson said. "It's an exciting day but everyone is glad when it's over.” While spirits are high on launch day, everyone -- customer and employee alike -- just wants to go home and play with their new gadgets.