To most of us, I’m sure, the idea of waiting in line to buy the latest Apple gadget seems to be an absurd waste of time. But reframing the lining-up activity creates a different way of understanding why they do it.
Just over three weeks ago on a Friday, Apple released its updated version of the iPad. As is usually the case with Apple’s new product releases, many of the faithful waited in line for hours–some for days–for the privilege of laying down a few Benjamins to be a first day owner of the device. For the pride of being an ultimate early adapter. I ran into such a line that Friday evening in the Chelsea district of New York while daughter and I were heading out to have a glass of wine at one of her favorite gathering spots. The line was 5-6 blocks long on that chilly Friday early evening and it took us a while to figure out what people were waiting for.
We finally passed the Apple store on 14th Street and did some people watching, as the Apple employees let 2-3 customers in at a time, smiles on their faces, bounces in their steps. The well-mannered crowd was not at all expressing any kind of noticeable impatience or angst at having to wait outside in sharp-winded 40 degree weather. I wondered if they would be as civil if this were a line for the DMV.
And as we drank our glass of overpriced Sancerre inside in the noisy and vibrant Standard Club bar, we talked about what we had seen. It didn’t make sense. Cocktail hour on a Friday night in one of the coolest parts of NYC and people were waiting in line outside in the cold through their own volition to own a device arguably non-essential to their well-being and which they could in fact purchase the following day without waiting in any line at all. My thought process was summed up in a word: “Why?”
Sometimes choosing to wait in line has a very functional purpose. For a concert or athletic contest, there’s a limited number of tickets and/or good seats, so waiting in line is part of the price to pay for admission or to snag that enviable seat. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Ditto for the queues that usually assemble in the early morning hours for Black Friday bargains, when retailers reward sharp elbows and bad manners by slashing prices on selected items for the first few customers.
But waiting for an iPad2 is not like that. There is an almost unlimited supply and the product is the same whether purchased that day or the next week. This is more like the Star Wars fans who would wait in lawn chairs and tents for days to see the movie on opening day, causing those of us who are more “practical” to wonder if those people have jobs. Or lives. Like the Apple device, the movie was available for days and even weeks. Again, why?
But I’ve concluded that waiting in line for the iPad2 (or Star Wars) is indeed not rational because “rational” has to do with the head. Waiting in line for a new Apple product has to do with the heart. It’s about passion and insane commitment for Apple and anything Apple. It’s about appreciating Apple coolness and making a public demonstration that you are a disciple, a true believer of the brand.
I’ve also concluded that waiting in line that Friday night was not a “task” at all for those enthusiasts, it was part of a fun event. It’s like the reception line at a wedding–it’s part of the ceremony, of the rite. I think those of us who take a cost-benefit utilitarian view of waiting in line to buy something are missing the point in this situation. Wasting time? Are you kidding? Standing in line surrounded by others who have the same quirky, quasi-geeky appreciation, Facebook friending the person next to you, comparing points-of-view about technology, swapping stories about waiting in line for other Apple releases, discussing the jobs situation or the Jobs situation–it’s an event, it’s a happening.
I’d still never wait in line myself, but I think I finally get why some people do.
Mike Hoban is a management consultant in his day job and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org