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Selling Performas at the Front Lines

Do you ever wonder why, when you walk into a large consumer electronics store that sells Macs, the sales staff are not always very helpful (or sometimes even friendly)? My experiences during the last holiday shopping season gave me insight into why some Macintosh buyers get the cold shoulder from sales staff.

I’ve used a Mac since 1989, and – just before Christmas – I subcontracted with Apple on one of their in-store promotions, called Apple Demo Days. After two days of training, I went to work at the busiest Future Shop store in Canada’s greater Vancouver, B.C. region – which roughly translated into a pre-Christmas shopping hell.

Spiff and Span — I found that sales staff get kickbacks (called "spiffs") from the computer companies for extra sales. Acer, Compaq, IBM, and Apple all give incentives. Guess who gave the best incentive at the stores I visited? Acer. Guess who sold the most? Acer. Guess who gave the least incentive? Apple. Guess which company sold the least? You get the idea.

Not only do incentives vary from one brand to another, but also from one model to the next. For example, the incentives on the Performa 6400/200 or 180 were considerably higher than on the new 6360.

The incentive scheme is probably the strongest motivator for sales staff, and it translates into the sales staff spending more time with a potential Acer Aspire buyer than a Macintosh buyer. It also translates into sales staff pushing the Acer brand instead of the Mac. "Ease of use" or "plug and play" have no meaning when the sales staff receives incentives of up to 500 percent more.

In my time at Future Shop, the Acer Aspire sold at roughly a rate of ten to one compared to the Macintosh. It was painful to watch. Neophyte computer users had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Most of them wanted a cheap machine that got them on the Internet. The Aspire does that – eventually.

I spoke with many of these first-time computer buyers. My first question was, "Have you ever considered a Macintosh?" Ninety percent of the answers were "no" (and these were the polite responses). I often received comments such as, "Is this a joke?", "Does it do Windows?", and "My friends all have Windows 95 – why should I buy a Mac?" After I bypassed their apparent dread of anything Macintosh, people were always impressed with my demo. Just putting a disk or CD in the drive and having it appear on the desktop amazed people. The ease of use blew people away. Having cable TV play through the Mac made people’s jaws drop to the floor. Some seriously considered the Mac as an alternative (for about five minutes), and then bought an Acer anyway.

On a positive note, 90 percent of the Mac users were pleased to see me. I had great conversations with long time Mac fans about how great the Mac is and how lousy Apple is at marketing the Mac. (The remaining 10 percent were Performa 6400 users who had bought their machines when they first went on sale; Apple dropped the price by about $700 Canandian two months after their introduction).

It was obvious that new computer users were coming into the store with preconceived notions about which computer to buy. They were not coming to make a decision, they were coming to buy the computer they had already chosen. Combined with the staff’s motivation to offer the Acer to anyone with the slightest doubt about what to buy, this made for comparatively low Mac sales.

What Should Apple Do? Apple needs a more aggressive advertising strategy in order to outsell the Acer Aspires of this world. Though 30-minute infomercials are great, a creative, intelligent 30-second ad can be more effective. Every medium must be equally considered.

Although Apple incentives to sales staff have improved (all staff at one Future Shop store, for example, received PowerBook 190s for having the highest Macintosh sales over a given period), nothing convinces commission-paid staff to sell more product than cold, hard cash. I know this because I had several members of the sales staff asking me to buy their PowerBooks from them.

If the Mac sales at large electronics stores are so disappointing, why are Macs still offered in that channel? Because that’s where budget-conscious, first-time, don’t-know-better computer users buy their first machines. Future Shop stores are on the front line in the battle for new consumer buying power.

There are still far more people without home-based computers than with them. Apple must convert first-time computer buyers before they even enter a store. Combine this with motivating the sales staff to introduce Apple products to first-time buyers and Apple sales figures could soar.

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