The Apple Trabant

In March this year, as I was preparing to exit stage left from Tate, my kindly colleagues past and present clubbed together in time-honoured tradition to purchase some leaving gifts. As ever, I was stumped for a reply to “what would you like?” I know, a simple enough question, but I had no answer. In the end, I recognised that it was about time to upgrade my ancient Sony Ericsson phone to something a little more contemporary, so I requested some vouchers for the Apple Store.
Come the evening of my leaving do, I was amazed and greatly touched to receive a beautiful laptop bag and a £500 Apple Store voucher. Yes, £500. That’s a lot of fivers, pounds and pennies into a brown envelope. I’m still amazed.
My technology consultant advised me to await the release of the iPhone 5 before making a purchase, so this I did. Come the magic day, the Apple website stated that it was necessary to apply on-line for a phone. The system worked as follows: select the product/colour you want, enter email address, wait for a reply to say you’ve been successful. That’s easy enough, I thought. Except, of course, it wasn’t.
If you’re not successful, nothing happens. No email. So you have to do it again, and wait. Again. And again. And again. It also stipulated that if you were fortunate enough to be allocated one of the blessed phones, you had to visit your nominated Store the following day, otherwise it would be returned to stock for re-allocation.
After three or four weeks of dancing to this tune, I paid a visit to the Apple church on Regent Street. It’s one of those places which makes me feel ancient, utterly out of my comfort zone, useless. Lots of happy looking people were playing around with lots of smart, small devices. The staff all looked too young to have left school, but that made them relatively easy to spot. I found a young man with a piercing through his lip, and explained my situation. He said yes, that’s how it works. I said that the problem for me was that it didn’t work. Apple had my (well, other people’s) money but weren’t apparently able to sell me a phone.
Ah, he said, this is a much better system than the last time around as then, people could just queue up outside and come in and buy the phones, and that wasn’t fair. Oh, it wasn’t? It sounds like capitalism working pretty well to me, I said, whereas this feels like the USSR in the 1970s. He didn’t laugh. I repeated my frustration but lip boy just said I’d need to keep on applying. Some people get one the next day, you know. Well, lucky them…
Around this time, Apple’s Head of Retail, John Browett, left the company after just six months. I decided that this was karma for my lack of progress with securing an iPhone.
Back to one-sided ping pong on the Apple website. On it went, for some more weeks. No reply. No phone. I was stuck – I couldn’t buy an iPhone anywhere other than Apple, as they had my money. But they seemed unable or unwilling to sell me one. I ventured back to Regent Street on a Sunday afternoon.
I explained the situation, again, and got the same replies. I asked to see the manager. Over she came. The manager, it has to be said, was polite, consistent, and firm. It seemed that she had had a lot of training in how to deal with customers who are displeased. Not once did she drop eye contact, lose patience, or back down one inch. The system is fair. It works. You have to keep trying. Some people get a phone the next day.
I tried some new moves on her to break the impasse. OK, I said. The apply-on-line system will mean that it is inevitable that at the end of each day, there will be some allocated phones which have not been claimed. Therefore, just go to the stock room and let me have one of them.
You don’t know that, I was told. Yes, I do, it is the law of averages. Well, that’s your opinion. No, it’s not just my opinion, it is obvious that if you allocate, say, 100 phones a day, not all 100 people will show up.
You don’t know that, I was told, and we can’t do that, it wouldn’t be fair as it would be queue jumping. I reasoned that I had queued for quite long enough and as the manager, she could use her discretion to get me a phone. Not possible, she said, as it would not be fair and, anyway, the system wouldn’t let her over-ride it.
But you’re a technology company, I said – you must be able over-ride the system. No, can’t. Can. Can’t.
Right then, another idea. This happened to be the weekend when the new mini-iPad was released for sale, and the store was chocker with people queuing up to buy one – and being sold one. Like in good old private enterprise. Why can’t I queue up for an iPhone? Well, there is a different system for the iPhone, I was reminded. Yes, I said, one which clearly doesn’t work.
I was getting exasperated although I kept fairly calm. OK, I said. If you won’t sell me a phone, despite having had my £500 for about seven months, I want to leave here with a refund. Ah, we can’t do that, we don’t refund vouchers. This got a bit heated. After a while, as a very special favour, it was agreed that a refund could be given.
But, inevitably, not to me, as I didn’t pay for the vouchers. The Store has to protect itself from fraud. I am sure it does, I said, but there is no chance of fraud here. Apple have had the money for seven months, the credit card payment is not suddenly going to be reversed or somehow fraudulent after all this time… but no, it wasn’t possible.
Right. Refund the money now then and we can call it a day. Ah, no, we can’t do that, we need the actual card in order to make the refund. No, I said. I have already had to make two wasted journeys to Regent Street, why on earth should my ex-colleague be inconvenienced to the degree of having to visit too? Because. No. Yes. No.
OK, another idea. I will call her now, using my Sony Ericsson, and she can give you her card number and all will be done. No, can’t do that. Yes, no, yes. Why not? Because our systems are not set up to take card-holder-not-present refunds. But you’re a technology company, and you’re the manager, so use your discretion. Can’t. You’ll have to bring the card in, or she will. Really? I could bring in someone else’s card and you’d accept that? This aspect surprised me and was left to one side as I wasn’t about to ask for and then present a card which wasn’t mine.
There was nowhere for me to go. I had to contact my ex-colleague and let her know that she would have to do this for me. Before I left I made two statements: firstly, that all this makes me feel that Apple is the most arrogant company on God’s earth, one which has completely lost touch with its customers, and seems to have designed structures which are impossible to navigate, and secondly that I will never, ever purchase anything from Apple. That, I was told, is up to you.
Does it end there? No. A few weeks passed before ex-colleague had time to visit the Regent Street church. She was told that the special offer of a refund stood for only 24 hours, and it was too late to claim one. She held her ground and, in the end – after more kerfuffle with identifying the exact card that was used – which necessitated her making yet another visit – a refund was given.
So, there you go. I wanted an iPhone, and I had in effect paid for it. Despite having had my money for seven months, and despite my attempts to navigate their ordering systems, Apple were happier to refund me £500 than make any allowance for what I would call customer service. They’re a technology company that was unable or hadn’t thought of the possibility to set up an on-line queuing system. If you don’t like it, tough. If you want to go and buy a Samsung, so be it. My lovely leaving gift money will now be spent at John Lewis. I feel confident that their approach will be somewhat more flexible and enlightened… Goodbye Apple. I will die without ever having owned one of your machines. Let it be.

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