Angry scenes at Apple UK

There were angry scenes at Apple UK last week when the company announced a shakeup of its Mac reseller channel.

About 130 resellers gathered in the company's Stockley Park headquarters were told that Apple is cancelling all previous contracts. To shouts of disbelief and anger, dealers were told that resellers would be recertified based on:

  • Minimum quarterly sales targets. Dealers must make £60,000 yearly and must buy at least £15,000 per quarter of pure Apple product.

  • Staff size. Dealers must employ at least five people, two of whom must have "Gold Status" in the Apple Earn & Learn program, an online training course.

  • Premises. Dealers must have premises that Apple has approved for demonstration of its products. Dealers were also told they must maintain an e-mail address.
In answer to the uproar that greeted the announcement, Apple channel program manager Nigel Boatswain said the move was intended to improve Mac buyers' overall purchasing experience.

Apple reportedly wants to ensure that the level of knowledge and standard of the United Kingdom's Apple dealers remains high. While most dealers said they respect this goal, the main areas of contention seem to be the new rules about staff size and Apple-approved sales premises.

One dealer, under threat from the new regulations and asking not to be named, denounced the move, which he said would spell the end for many small retailers and even some larger mail-order dealers. "What they are doing is cutting out the Mac faithful," the dealer said, "by excluding them from Earn & Learn; excluding them from invitations to Apple for product briefings and new launches (hence restricting their product knowledge); and worst of all, excluding them from the essential supply of Apple-produced point-of-sale material such as product banners and literature."

He continued: "Apple, in my view, must acknowledge that a significant proportion of their UK sales come from small resellers, who offer that one essential ingredient that large off-the-page sellers find so elusive: the personal touch."

A larger dealer said he had mixed feelings about the move. "On principle, it's good for Apple and doesn't harm us," he said. "But in reality it seems a bit short sighted. The small dealers -- especially the one-man bands -- are intensely loyal to Apple. They've supported Apple through the difficult times and kept the Apple name high in public awareness. That has been beneficial to Apple and to us." He said he thought the restructure would prove unworkable and Apple would have to reinstate the small dealers.

By contrast, a third dealer, who represents one of the most-established Mac resellers, said he was in full support of Apple's new policy. "I think it's a normal process for Apple," said the dealer, who also requested anonymity. "Over the years, every now and then, Apple has had a channel review, which gives it a chance to talk to resellers and make sure they have the right approach. There's nothing particularly sinister about it. "Apple is trying to ensure that an Apple dealer is just what the name implies, rather than a company that just sells the odd machine alongside PCs," he said. "I think Apple's worry is that some companies might use the Apple listing to gain custom, but then say to the customer, 'Here's a Mac, but you'd be better off buying a PC,' and then they've lost a sale. If Apple wants the customer to have a good experience of buying its products, it has to ensure that resellers meet a certain standard. "You'll find that those that shout the loudest are those that are least likely to meet the standard," the dealer added. "Any reseller that's offering the right level of competence should have no problem meeting the requirements."

Apple acknowledged that there had been some bad feeling among the smaller resellers but insisted that the restructuring was for the benefit of Apple customers and the company's public image. "We are revising the criteria for Apple-authorised resellers," said David Millar, PR manager for Apple UK. "We are basing the criteria on an implicit level of quality and asking the resellers to show commitment to the platform."

When asked how this would affect purely mail-order based dealers, Millar replied, "Apple has found three mail-order dealers, in MacWarehouse, Computer Warehouse and Jigsaw, who meet our customer-service criteria."

At the meeting, Apple's Boatswain invited resellers to e-mail him with their comments, but judging from Apple's response it appears that the restructuring moves will go ahead as planned.

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