Psychology of a Line: Apple’s Marketing Tactics

Psychology of a Line: Apple’s Marketing Tactics

Mike Tyson
Mar 16, 2011

This past Friday we paid a visit to our local Apple store to pick up an iPad 2. Analysts and fans alike were anticipating longer lines than usual because Apple didn't allow for early preorders. Fully understanding the circumstances, we arrived an hour and a half early, took out a book, and began to wait. We quickly came to appreciate the psychological implications of a line of waiting people, both to the participants and the passersby. We took a few mental notes and wanted to discuss them briefly to see if our readers tended to agree with this methodology of product releases which Apple has seemed to whole-heartedly embrace.

The first unusual aspect of this release was that it was to go on sale at 5pm. There was a lot of speculation as to why this was and although Apple has never officially explained it, we think it was planned to occur during rush hour/evening news times. Although this factor wouldn't affect stores that were tucked inside shopping malls, our store, being located on one of the busiest streets of the city, seemed to garner a ton of attention from passersby. Whether it was people walking by the line on foot or driving by in a car, it seemed that no one could help but gawk at the waiters. And we don't think we've ever been photographed so much in our life. It seemed like every minute there was someone who was walking down the line with a cell phone camera out, documenting its length. Groups of people across the street also were constantly snapping photos. This greatly enhanced the hype of the moment. The people in line feel important, supported by the intense documentation of the event by others.

Apple certainly wasn't ignorant to the demands of the line either. They sent employees out to provide us with free pretzels and coffee. A local coffee shop also sent representatives to hand out teas so the waiting crowd was well fed and generally in very good spirits. Additionally, shortly before the doors opened, a convoy of Apple employees made their way down the length of the line (blocks long) cheering and high-fiving everyone.

Of course there was the fair share of naysayers. People occasionally walked by laughing at us, or saying things like "I can't believe all these people are waiting for the new iPhone" or "Don't they already have the iPad 1?" But you can't please everyone. The majority of the pedestrians seemed to approach the line with a much more light-hearted or interested manor. But even some participants took issues with the line as well. 9to5mac.com has a blog post which complies horror stories and other undesirable tales from the infamous line wait. Many complained of waiting in line for hours only to find out nearly all models were sold out by the time they were ready to purchase. In our case, after about 75 people went through the door all AT&T iPads (that is 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB, black and white) were sold out. This was well before even a quarter of the line had walked through the doors. Conversely, others found an entrepreneurial advantage to the line. In the example of the 5th Ave store in Manhattan, a college student auctioned off her place in line shortly before sales started for a cool $900.

Taking this all into consideration, is the "line" a good marketing tactic for Apple? We'd have to say so. Although it wasn't the most comfortable experience of our lives, we were able to do the same thing we would have had we been at home (read a book). Apple did well to make sure everyone was fed. Our line neighbors were friendly to us and people were accommodating to bathroom/food breaks. As cheesy as it sounds, it was a kind of bonding experience and felt like we were in a mini-Apple convention of its own. Although we certainly wouldn't make this a weekly habit or anything, waiting a few hours in a line every other year or so could be enjoyable. Also, the sheer exposure or "free advertising" the line gives Apple is really impressive.. Just search Flickr/Youtube/the many Apple blogs to see a wide selection of line photos/stories that simply help to spread the Apple name and brand.

Did you wait in a line for an Apple release? Was your experience positive? Negative? Would you never wait in line for any release? Tell us your stories below.

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