Remembering Gary Allen, Apple stores’ most devoted overnight camper

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Gary Allen at Apple's store in Tysons Corner, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.
Gary Allen at Apple's store in Tysons Corner, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.
Photo: Gary Allen

It’s with great sadness that I heard about the passing of Gary Allen this morning. I met Gary several times over the years and called and corresponded with him many times. He ran IFOAppleStore.com, by far the best website about Apple’s incredible chain of retail stores, a topic that proved a rich hunting ground, given its size, influence and global reach. Gary had an encyclopedic knowledge of Apple’s stores and his site — now sadly offline — was an incredible resource.

Gary was also known for traveling all over the word to attend store openings, often camping out the night before. He visited London, Paris, Tokyo, Istanbul, Beijing and many, many other cities. Some saw this as eccentric, but the point was not the store opening itself, but the chance to socialize with a bunch of like-minded people. To get some idea of his devotion to his hobby, check out his Twitter and Flickr feeds, still online and full of pictures from his travels.

I wrote a profile of Gary a few years ago that is now also offline, so I’m resurrecting it below.

Apple's store in Tokyo's swanky Ginza shopping district.
Apple’s store in Tokyo’s swanky Ginza shopping district.
Photo: Héctor García/Kirai CC

On Thanksgiving, Gary Allen and his teenage son caught a plane to Japan from their home in Berkeley, California, to attend the grand opening of Apple Computer’s new store in Tokyo.

Rising early Friday, the pair spent the next 28 hours standing outside the store in the rain to be the first in line when the doors were thrown open Saturday morning. Objective achieved, and commemorative T-shirts in hand, the pair flew home the next day.

“It was definitely the most exciting grand opening of all the stores I’ve been to,” said Allen, who has turned the gala openings of Apple Stores into something of a hobby.

Allen, the 56-year-old publisher of Dispatch, a magazine for emergency dispatchers, and his son Devin, 16, have attended the openings of five Apple Stores in the United States, which they have documented in detail on Allen’s 300-page website, IFO Apple Store (IFO = In Front Of).

“My wife doesn’t quite understand the fascination,” he said. “I try to explain to her it’s a social experience. It’s a fun thing. But Tokyo in the rain. She was mystified by that.”

Being the first in line at the Tokyo store was something of a coup for the pair. As an astonishing video shot by Masanori Fukumoto attests, interest in the new store was unprecedented, even for shopping-mad Tokyo-ites.

The video shows the amazing number of people who waited patiently to get inside on opening day.

The line, which Allen estimated to be 2,500 at its height, takes a full 10 minutes to traverse from beginning to end. It stretched for about 10 Tokyo city blocks, according to a map created by Allen.

The line outside the Apple Store outdid the 2,400 who lined up last year to get into Tokyo’s Louis Vuitton store, according to JapanConsuming magazine. Apple said 8,000 people visited the store on opening day.

“Apple has made the step from office tool to designer brand,” the magazine said.

Located in the heart of Tokyo’s upscale Ginza shopping district, Apple’s five-story store is the first of Apple’s 74 stores to open outside the United States.

As well as attending Apple Store openings, Allen has become something of an expert on them.

For example, Allen has discovered that Apple uses a sophisticated video-monitoring system to automatically count the number of customers who enter the store, and to document their behavior once inside.

According to Allen, Apple uses a ShopperTrak system to count the number of people passing the store, the percentage who enter, and the percentage of those who make a purchase. Allen declined to state his source. An Apple spokeswoman confirmed that the company carefully tracks consumer traffic and buying patterns, but wouldn’t discuss its methodology.

Allen also has seen the very precise and detailed blueprint that determines the precise layout of each and every Apple Store. The blueprint, which is so detailed it is initially difficult to decipher, prescribes the exact location of every machine, peripheral, brochure, and even the mouse pads and cables.

“(The stores are) completely standardized,” Allen said. “A store in Florida is exactly the same as a store in Chicago.”

Likewise, the new Tokyo store is indistinguishable from a store in the United States, Allen said. It features all the familiar elements, like a Genius Bar, where resident experts dispense help and advice, and a theater for talks and presentations. Allen said he was surprised to see it is almost entirely in English, with the exception of a few brochures.

“Apple feels they have a very, very strong brand … and to do anything with brand would dilute it,” he said. “Even in Japan, they want to give (customers) the total Apple brand experience.”

Perhaps most significantly, Allen said the stores are clearly designed to be meeting places and laid-back showrooms for Apple’s technology.

“They are a focal point for many types of experiences, not just selling,” he said. “They are very open to the social experience. They are not just for people to come in and buy.”

Allen cited the Genius Bar and the Kids Area, two features common to all stores, which encourage customers to do something other than shop. Allen also noted the numerous in-store demos and presentations, music events and school nights, where kids show projects created at school. The new Tokyo store, for instance, will host more than 400 “customer events” a month, according to an Apple press release.

An expert in Apple’s retail strategy, who asked not to be named, concurred.

“Apple is very conscious of Mac users and the spirit of the Mac community,” the source said. “They (Apple) wanted something like Barnes & Noble. They wanted to create a place where people sit down and do something other than buy a book.”

The strategy appears to be working. In 2003, Apple attracted 25 million visitors to its stores, which turned a modest profit and earned Apple 10 percent of its sales, according to a presentation by Ron Johnson, the hotshot executive from retailer Target recruited by Apple to run its stores.

Allen said store staffers are extremely laid-back, and their hands-off approach encourages customers to come in and play around. Allen said he’s used machines in the store to video conference with his son when out of town, which requires changing the machines’ settings. “You can’t do that in other stores,” he said.

Allen visits his local Apple Store in Emeryville, California, every couple of weeks or so to hang out and chat with staff. One of the things he likes is the ease with which he can chat with other customers.

“You can talk because you know they are a Mac person,” he said. “You can’t do that in any other store. You can’t talk to a stranger about refrigerators. You can’t say, ‘Hey, isn’t this a great ice maker?’ because you would feel foolish. In the Apple store, there’s no barrier to talking. There’s an instant connection kind of thing.”

Allen decided on his whirlwind Tokyo trip to make up for missing an “overnighter,” or camping out before the grand opening of a store, in nearby Marin County, which he couldn’t attend because of business.

“It’s a social event,” Allen said. “There are so many aspects of Apple that are discussable: The technology, the culture, design, innovation … get 10 or 12 people together, you can spend the night discussing these issues.”

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The original version of this story can be found at the Internet Archive’s fantastic Wayback Machine.

Another story I wrote featuring Gary (also offline except for on the Wayback Machine): This amusing tale of how Apple’s flagship store in San Francisco had a problem with break-ins even before construction was finished.