We Need Them More Than They Need Us

TRAVERSE CITY – When five million iPhone 5s sold out in three days this September, CityMac + Digital Cafe owners Jeff Broderick and Greg Nickerson calmly watched the retail maelstrom from afar.

"Some of the recent hysteria didn't impact us as much on the sales floor, specifically because we don't sell the iPhone here," said Broderick, whose business is technically known as an Apple Specialist store and can't sell the hot phones because of Apple's agreement with wireless giant AT&T.

CityMac's working agreement with Apple means that CityMac can sell its products to individuals and businesses (but not schools – Apple reserves that right) and sell most of Apple's product line with the exception of the iPhone.

"They are picky," said Nickerson, who visited Apple stores in Atlanta and San Francisco before opening CityMac in 2008. "We toe the line and do it their way."

In spite of the potentially sour limitations on the product side, CityMac has turned their relationship with Apple and its legion of regional devotees into lemonade with its hip storefront, Apple-esque product displays, and attention to service, both for its products and its customers.

"We wanted a clean look and had many of our displays built locally," said Nickerson, who recently attended service manager boot camp at Apple's Austin training center to learn how to increase service revenue and profits. "It was definitely modeled after corporate Apple stores."

Nickerson bought CityMac in 2008 from the Neu family after operating its predecessor, the Computer Haus, for more than two decades. Broderick, who is married to Nickerson's sister, joined the business in 2010. The family business now has 11 employees.

He said he has seen two major changes since Apple went from Windows also-ran, with five percent of the computing market, to the world's most valuable company in the past 15 years.

"Fifteen years ago, I would say that Apple was our strongest partner. Now, Apple is our largest competitor," said Nickerson about the multi-billion dollar online and storefront sales Apple reports. "We need them, they need us, but they don't need us as much as we need them."

In addition to competing against Apple's significant online and storefront presence, local big box stores like Sam's Club, Target and Best Buy began selling limited Apple product lines a few years ago. The competing stores are all less than a half-mile from City Mac.

"It's hard to measure [the impact of big box competition]," said Broderick. "Our growth has gone up steadily. Sometimes we get customers who go, compare information, and then come in here to get a personalized explanation of a product. We offer that personal touch."

Another change since the late 1990s? The swing from pure computing to pure consumerism through iPods, iPads, and iPhones.

"It's just such a consumer-oriented company," he said. "In fact, they are working hard to win their business clients back."

And, perhaps someday, their education clients.

"It used to be years ago that Apple would not only sell the schools the equipment, but also provide installation and support," said Nickerson. "We would like to see them revamp this channel, maybe even reestablishing local dealers as the point of contact for the schools.

"It would definitely cement our relationship to future buyers," he said.

For more information, visit CityMac + Digital Café at 3480 South Airport Road, Traverse City. Visit CityMac.net or call (231) 946-1045.