Apple's iPhone SE could make people forget phone stores

The launch of an extremely well-reviewed and inexpensive phone may accelerate a change in the way people buy gadgets. It could make average buyers think differently about phone stores, too.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

I have my limits. Well, at least in some things.

For example, my head has always told my abjectly greedy heart not to buy overly expensive things online.

If I'm going to spend a substantial amount of money on a product -- especially a gadget -- I want to be able to see it, feel it, touch it and, in the case of phones and laptops, be persuaded by a cheerily youthful salesperson about the gadget's astounding merits.

Perhaps I'm becoming a rarity. Whenever new phones emerge, many people hover above several keyboards just to be the first to place their orders. Before ever physically seeing the phone, that is.

I have a feeling they're still not the majority. Many surely like to go to their local phone store to get excited -- or, at least -- to reassure themselves.

Yet here we are in isolation. Here we are stuck in front of screens, unable to touch, see or feel. And here is Apple releasing what may be a very important phone.

The new iPhone SE 2020 is already enjoying squealingly positive reviews. It's garlanded with so many very modern features, despite being slightly smaller. And then there's the price. Starting at $399, the new SE even managed to interest my wife, who usually has less affection for Apple than she has for squid and suet pudding.

I know you'll tell me this won't happen, but what if the new SE is an absurd success? 

With many new phones, those who order them without seeing them often have money to spare. The phones are expensive and aimed at the fanciful. 

The new SE is different. It's aimed at a far greater mass of people who want a new phone but really don't want to pay $1,000 for it. Or even $800.

Those people currently feel the world may have irrevocably changed. They fear they'll now have to get used to social distancing, Zooming and stepping warily around the world in a mask.

They know it won't be so easy to walk into an Apple store or a Verizon store and get the help they need. Yes, masks encourage eye contact. They don't enhance the overall human experience. What if the new store experience is so uninviting -- imagine an Apple store that only admits twenty people at a time -- that people actively avoid it?

The whole point of retail is the personal experience. If that is gone, what remains?

Real people -- those not necessarily versed in technological ways -- used to rely on store employees to set their phones up, help them transfer data and generally ease them into their new gadget.

If, however, they're now tempted to buy online and brave the notion of setting everything up for themselves, it'll be one step further away from phone stores and one step closer to relatively high-value items being bought online.

It's one thing buying an expensive dress online. You try it on. If it doesn't fit, you send it back. With a phone, it's about trusting yourself -- and a few YouTube videos -- to make it work.

There's another aspect of sheltering in place that might influence SE purchase. New research from neuromarketing company Neuro-Insight suggests that the longer we remain in isolation, the more we redefine what is essential and what is indulgent. In week three of isolation, for example, alcohol apparently becomes essential.

Many people are now in week five. They may now feel the new iPhone SE is an essential purchase too, not remotely an indulgent one. The price will only encourage them.

You might think this has all been a long time coming. Tim Cook's Apple has progressively discouraged the human parades that used to adorn Apple stores on launch days. He wants you to make your decision beforehand and merely make an appointment at the store to pick up your phone.

But if he can now persuade a substantial number of more value-conscious shoppers to take a big leap (for many of them), the role of the stores will be permanently changed.

It'll also be one more step toward our self-isolation.

I'm not really looking forward to that.

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