Four hours in Apple Store hell: What iPhone Upgrade customers need to know

If you're considering buying an iPhone 6s or 6s Plus using Apple's new get-a-new-iPhone-every-year upgrade program, read this now. Forewarned is forearmed. Plus, shared pain is healing.

Despite the toxic hellstew of the Orlando store, the employees were amazing.

Before I begin the story, here's a note inspired by commenters: To get the iPhone Upgrade Program, you MUST go to a store. Normally I do all my purchasing online, but if you want this specific program, you must-must-must show up at an actual retail store.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I regret deciding to buy an iPhone. I bought an iPhone 6s Plus, which I haven't even used yet. But I so regret buying it.

Let me expand on that statement. The iPhone 6s Plus 128GB version (silver) may well be a fine phone. But the buying experience was so tedious and excruciating that it overshadows any value the product itself might have.

We had a 2:30pm appointment at the Orlando Apple store at the Florida Mall. My wife and I entered the mall at 2:28pm. We left the mall at 6:26pm. That's right. Buying an iPhone -- with an appointment, mind you -- took four incredibly unpleasant hours.

This experience, by the way, was not the fault of the Apple Store employees. Our rep, Brian, stood with us for all four hours, not once failing to maintain his cool and always being polite and helpful. Our direct and indirect encounters with the other employees were also pleasant. Brian, on the other hand -- Angela, are you reading this? -- deserves a promotion, a bonus, a prize. Any customer service organization would be incredibly fortunate to have him on its team.

No, the experience had to do with crowds, carriers, idiotic policies, guidelines incorrectly specified on the Apple Web site, and the newness of the iPhone 6s product line.

The Orlando Apple Store looks a lot like a bus station, with as many people as you might see during rush hour. This was not a store designed for a pleasant shopping experience. We're not talking Barnes & Noble, or even Filene's Basement. Think instead Trenton bus station or an unloved, unrenovated Department of Motor Vehicles office, although even the DMV has a place to sit.

My incredibly patient wife

Let's discuss the major design element in the store: the display tables. Imagine a 4 x 8 foot slab of plywood dropped on top of four 4 x 4 inch legs. Edge the thing with a one by 4 inch sidewalls for support and you got yourself an Apple Store display table.

The single most prevalent design element in the store: these tables

There are probably hundreds of these things in the store, they make up the primary content of the entire store. These don't represent some brilliant Jony Ive statement of minimalism. They look much more like a class project performed during a work release program at the local penitentiary.

If you've ever been in a Walgreens or CVS you know what the sidewalls of this place look like. Cheap, white, semi-transparent plastic panels with some kind of image decal on top of them, backlit by florescent lights.

Simple white panels "adorn" the store

Using an app on my Android phone, I measured the sound level in the store. It hovered around 81 dB and broke 84 dB on a regular basis.

Nearly harmful decibel (dB) levels

According to WebMD, soundscapes that produce decibel levels in the 80-89 range include "Heavy traffic, window air conditioner, noisy restaurant, and power lawn mower." WebMD says that sounds above 85 dB are harmful. The Apple store was consistently barely a notch below harmful.

This wasn't necessary, but the store "designers" put absolutely nothing in the store to break up the noise. Since Apple has done yearly iPhone launches for almost a decade, and it's obvious that these launches trigger a surge of humanity into the store, the lack of sound absorption with near-harmful sound levels is negligence, pure and simple. Not only is it dangerous, it is very unpleasant and anxiety-producing.

If not the customers, the employees -- who have to endure that sound for days at a time -- deserve better working conditions.

Check-in was easy. We were greeted by a friendly Apple Store employee wearing a gray T-shirt, some kind of pinkish-plaid shorts, and a top-knot (hair that's tied up into a bunch, shot up from the top of the head). He had an augmented iPhone in his hand and a communicator hooked to his pocket. Clearly we had arrived in Apple-space.

Only those with the one true appointment may enter

Since we had an appointment, we were immediately ushered through the crowd of browsing shoppers to a cordoned-off line. The divider was opened, and we were ushered in. Initially, it felt great to get what seemed like special treatment for appointment holders, but after about thirty minutes, it felt more like we were roped off animals waiting for the slaughter.

And we waited...

At this point, we had no idea what sort of epic cluster-frak we were heading into.

Eventually, we made it to the front of the appointment-holder line and another gray T-shirted guy met us. This was Brian. We would become very close to Brian over the next many hours. Did I mention Brian deserves an award? He does.

We began our purchasing experience discovering that this phase was as poorly designed as the store itself. There was absolutely no privacy whatsoever.

Rather than being brought to a private area to give your credit card and confidential information, Apple reps are required to move you right into the middle of the store, right into the middle of the swarm of other shoppers and lookie-loos.

Here, surrounded on every side by other shoppers, we were expected to provide all of our personal identifying information, while Brian tried ever-so-gently to fend off the insatiable demands of the loose-roaming shoppers.

It was in this context that I experienced, ever so briefly, what it may feel like to be an Apple Store employee. In a desire to be relatively low key during the buying experience, I put on my most nondescript gray T-shirt, rather than one of my favorite black T-shirts with evil clowns, growling dogs, or bleeding red-white-and-blue skulls.

What I didn't know until I got into the middle of the store was my shirt (minus the little Apple logo) was almost identical to that of the Apple reps. That meant that as I was going through the purchase experience from hell, I was also fending off some incredibly entitled-acting and demanding customers who thought I was another rep.

Sadly, those customers did not experience the same level of patient gentleness from me that the actual reps somehow managed to convey. Instead, those poor souls found themselves on the other end of a "thou shalt burst into flames" glower. One guy, I swear, looked like he would have run away with his tail between his legs, if he only had a tail.

The Orlando Apple store is certainly not a place designed with any form of operational efficiency. Yes, the store employees were equipped with iPhone/credit card scanners and walkie-talkies. But that was where any sense of operational design ended.

There is no private space to conduct business

There was no space provided to separate the detailed and private (and, in our case, insanely and unnecessarily convoluted) financial deals of purchasing nearly thousand dollar devices from the crowds of demanding customers. Even the worst car dealer on the planet has a better, more functional design.

The feeling of chaos and lack of control was palpable everywhere. Everyone looked so tired, depressed, and beaten down. And those were just the shoppers.

Paco Underhill in Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping talks about the importance of managing flow through the store. I understand that Apple Stores have the highest retail sales per square foot of any retailer, but the customer experience is such that it felt like some engineer in Cupertino thought that if reps were equipped with iPhones and WiFi, nothing else was necessary.

Every transaction had to fit onto a little tiny iPhone screen. If the transaction details didn't fit the screen, then it didn't fit into Apple's sense of who they wanted to sell to. Even Verizon store employees walk around with iPad-size screens, rather than little tiny 4-inch iPhone screens.

To get an iPhone using the Apple Upgrade Program, you have to haul your butt to an Apple Store. For us, that's an hour and a half drive to Orlando.

Worse, those little iPhones were constantly handed back and forth between employee and customer. To purchase something, you have to take into hand the little iPhone combined with credit card reader that the Apple Store employees carry and type in all of your personal identifying information, using Apple's terrible native keyboard, and teeny-weeny keys.

It's unclear how many of the great unwashed used that device prior to when I had to wrap my beefy hand around it, but you know each and every person who touched it deposited germs that were still sitting on that device, when it was handed to me. Wash your hands -- a lot -- after you leave the Apple store. I took a 30-minute shower.

And then there were the lies, the misrepresentations, and the out and out incompetence that took another two hours.

The Apple Upgrade Program

We were in an Apple Store because my wife and I decided we liked the idea of the new Apple Upgrade Program. This is the program where you pay $35-45 per month, and get a brand new phone each year.

Sure, the carriers have been offering similar deals for a while, but Apple's program both includes AppleCare+ and the promise (which may or may not actually be true) of an unlocked phone that can be used on any carrier.

The gotcha: to get an iPhone using the Apple Upgrade Program, you have to haul your butt to an Apple Store. For us, that's an hour and a half drive to Orlando.

We did our research. The Apple Upgrade Plan requires you to book an appointment at a store. When the iPhone 6s Plus became available, we reserved two of them. The odd thing -- for an unlocked phone -- is that not only did you have to reserve a certain spec of phone (we chose 128GB and silver), but also a carrier.

We have been on Verizon for the past few years, but reception is spotty here at Camp David. We were thinking of moving off, to either Sprint or T-Mobile, because both offer WiFi-calling, which would give us the ability to easily use local Internet bandwidth rather than the cell network. Verizon doesn't offer WiFi calling, but does offer a $179 femtocell instead.

My wife wanted to go with Sprint, because a friend on the block has a Sprint phone and is getting great reception. I wanted to keep my options open. For all these reasons, an unlocked phone seemed like a great idea.

But then, the reservation form on the Apple Store required picking a carrier. I called Apple to ask about this. According to the phone rep, the carrier you pick doesn't matter (but, oh, it so does!) and you can choose any carrier when you get to the store (you so can't).

We picked Sprint. Big, big mistake.

Citizens One Loan Program

The other thing we looked up and prepared for were the various forms of identification required to qualify for the Apple Upgrade Program, which is really a loan program that Apple jobs out to Citizens One Bank. There is a page describing what you supposedly need to bring, which includes a warning that if your credit card billing address doesn't match your street address, you'll need to bring additional proof, which can include utility bills. Sounds like no big deal.

Our primary billing address for our main credit card is a PO Box, so we brought the other ID specified. We've long had a PO Box as our public-facing address, because it's just no fun having fans (or stalkers) showing up at the door at 2am. I've had both.

Having done our homework, we hopped in the car and took the ride. We arrived just in time, which is where our story began. But let's pick up the tale from the point where Brian and my wife and I claimed a small chunk of table space on the right side of the store.

Brian checked our bona-fides and then we waited a few minutes for two silver iPhones to be brought to us. We didn't know it at the time, but these were Sprint iPhones. I know, they're supposed to be unlocked. Stay with me. This gets ugly.

The Apple woman I spoke to before driving to Orlando assured me that if we wanted a new phone account, that could be handled at the store. So when the phones came out, Brian got to work hooking us up.

Except nothing worked.

The little iPhone he used to connect to all things back-end would not accept our PO Box address to set up a Sprint account. When we tried to give it our street address, the little iPhone insisted that it couldn't connect to Sprint's servers.

I don't think Sprint was prepared for the surge that happens during iPhone launch week and crumbled.

We tried, for close to an hour, to get Sprint to start the account process. Nothing worked. I must have typed in my address and social security number 30 times. Brian was starting to look a little nervous. My wife... well, I was just worried that the ride home was going to be... interesting.

Finally, Brian gave up on the little iPhone and went and found a manager and made some calls. He apparently got Apple's folks to talk to Sprint's folks, and then came back to us to try to set things up again. Sprint had given him some codes and accounts he needed to use.

If our phones were unlocked, why couldn't we use any phone with any carrier to set up our account? Why did we need to even set up our account with a carrier before leaving the store?

Once again, he called Sprint, this time on a separate iPhone 6 Plus. Frustration ensued when the Sprint person now on the phone insisted he had all the wrong information, and a whole different set of hoops needed to be jumped through. We tried that set of hoops, and still no joy.

By this time, we had started talking to a few other customers and reps. It turned out that store employees had been having trouble with Sprint all day -- and also that very few of our neighbor-ish customers were going with Sprint. Neither was a good sign.

Okay, fine, we thought. We have a Verizon account. Just use that.

Are these phones really unlocked?

Well, no. This is where the unlockedness of the phones comes into real question. Because the phones Brian had reserved for us were for Sprint only. He couldn't assign them to our Verizon account. They were not Verizon phones.

I still don't understand this. If our phones were unlocked, why couldn't we use any phone with any carrier to set up our account? Why, in fact, did we need to even set up our account with a carrier before leaving the store? These questions were never answered.

We were now about two and a half hours into our experience. Brian checked, and we were told there were no other phones available on other carriers. It was the Sprint way or the highway.

So we tried the Sprint thing a few more times. By this point, my wife and I were pretty run down and were seriously considering how nice a Note 5 might be.

But it's been more than three years since I bought a new iOS device, and to keep up with my coverage for you folks, it was time to go back to the iPhone. We decided to stick it out and try to make it work.

Yes, we went through this pain for you. You're welcome.

In any case, no joy was to be had with Sprint. It looked like after an hour and a half ride to the store, two and a half hours in the store, and what would be another hour and a half ride home, we'd be leaving empty handed.

That's when Brian said there was sometimes secret inventory. He asked us to wait, went back into the bowels of the store, and spoke to a manager about whether there were any spare phones on other carriers. He came back looking glum. There were no other phones on any other carriers to be had anywhere in the store.

We spent a little more time trying to get hooked up with Sprint. Still no joy. Brian decided to see if he could try his luck with another manager. This time, he came back and said the other manager had, somehow, somewhere, found us two Verizon phones. I'm not sure what this says about the way the Apple Store manages inventory contingencies, but we were very grateful for the sudden, unexplained, positive turn in our fortunes.

I still have this image in my mind of Mickey and Minnie Mouse (we're in Orlando, remember), tied up in the back of the store, having been mugged by a dedicated customer service employee for their soon-to-be-mine Verizon iPhones.

The registration with Verizon went flawlessly. And then...

It was time to do the hoop-jumping that was qualifying for the Apple Upgrade Program loan through Citizens One. Recall that we did our homework, checked what was required, and brought everything the Apple site said we needed to bring. We had our credit cards, our drivers licenses, our copies of bills.

But the credit cards we brought with us used the PO Box as the primary billing account. Those credit cards are our main cards, where we charge most of our business-related expenses. We do have other cards, including cards with our home as primary billing address. But we didn't bring them with us. That was a mistake.

Citizens One refused to set up our Apple Upgrade Program with the PO Box. So there we were, now more than three hours into this hellacious process, and getting blocked because either Apple or Citizens One couldn't get their head around the idea of people not wanting to give out their home address.

Brian checked, and his manager checked. Unfortunately, this policy is not clearly spelled out anywhere, and that the wording on the Web site makes it seem like bringing a utility bill is an acceptable workaround. Apparently, customers just come to the store, find out the hard way, and leave angry and empty-handed.

Yet, we were undeterred. We were not going to fail on our quest to get two phones we weren't even really sure we still wanted. We are now second-guessing that decision. Initially, we liked the idea of yearly upgrades. Now, we're thinking that if it means we have to go back to the Apple Store in a year, we're not sure it's worth it.

However, this was no longer about getting new phones. This was no longer about Apple or upgrades or even providing content to all you nice folks out there. This was about whether or not we were going to get our way and win.

We would not let the idiotic, short-sighted, small-minded bureaucracy of either Apple or Citizens One get in our way. So, from the store, my wife jumped onto her phone (the Android phone, 'natch), and called our bank. She worked her way through the their bureaucracy and -- while we were in the 82 dB noise of the store -- got our billing address changed. Right there, on the spot.

Are we done yet?

We again went though the application process with Brian and -- finally -- our Apple Upgrade Program was approved. We wound up getting our two 128GB phones, one gold (as part of the secret hidden phones Brian found, he got my wife a gold one) and one silver. On Verizon, not Sprint.

Brian opened up the phones, did basic setup, made sure they were working, and at 6:26 PM, three hours and fifty eight minutes after we arrived, we collapsed into the car for the drive home.

Ten lessons for young padawans

Here are the lessons we learned.

  • First, avoid Sprint. They may be fine during the dead months, but they don't appear to be able to handle the upgrade surge a new iPhone brings. For our advertisers (many of whom are IT companies that help businesses manage demand surges), I recommend you call on Sprint as soon as possible. Looks like their IT really desperately needs an upgrade.
  • Second, the unlocked phone thing may or may not be truly unlocked for the Apple Upgrade Program, but you're going to have to declare a carrier and either move or create an account when you reach the Apple Store. I would advise you to have an account and number set up before you arrive.
  • Third, make sure your billing address is a street address. This is a ridiculous requirement, but if you're not visiting the Apple Store with my wife -- who can work miracles with banks -- you need to be prepared ahead of time.
  • Fourth, bring every piece of ID and credit card you have. Load on up. You might need it.
  • Fifth, be aware you're taking out a loan. We were quite surprised to find out today that we are now holding about another $2,500 in debt. The Upgrade Program is a straight-out loan for about $1150 for each phone purchase (that extra $200 is probably the AppleCare+). As for what happens at trade-in time, that's anyone's guess. We'll see in two years just how screwed all of us are. At least it's interest-free.
  • Sixth, bring ear protection and hand wipes. The Apple Store, at 80+ dB can be considered a relatively hostile environment.
  • Seventh, be very, very nice to the Apple Store employees. Despite the toxic hellstew of the Orlando store, the employees were amazing.
  • Eighth, the Galaxy Note 5 looks really nice.
  • Ninth, you might want to think about bringing a portable chair. Lunch. Something to read. Xanax.
  • Tenth, there's always Microsoft...

Two doors down from the Apple Store

Stay tuned. I now have an iPhone again as my daily driver. You know this story isn't over.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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