Buying an iPad 2 was Worse Than Anticipating a Tsunami (Really!)

I’ve stood in line for three of Apple’s major product launches in the past 13 months:

1. April 2010: iPad
2. June 2010: iPhone 4
3. March 2011: iPad 2

The process of buying the iPad 2 was, by far, the worst buying experience (Apple or otherwise) I’ve experienced. The worst part of it is that most, if not all, of the problems associated with this terrible retail experience could have been avoided if Apple had simply provided a way for customers to pre-order an iPad 2 for delivery on its release date (March 11). This was something Apple has done twice before in the past 13 months. There must be some kind of incremental operation execution learning that occured during this time. And yet, Apple chose not to provide pre-ordering.

iPad 2 purchases were scheduled to start at 5pm local time at every Apple Store in the U.S. (participating retailers also were bound to this start time). I arrived at my local mall about 3pm. My hope was that this two hour window would be reasonable based on the assumption that some people would go to alternate retailers (AT&T store, Verizon Store, Target, etc.). Instead I saw the longest Apple launch product line of people ever. The line was so long that it had already reached the end of the enclosed mall and had exited the building. You can see an outdoor shot in the first part of the video embedded above. The line was eventually moved back into the mall after mall security requested Apple to make this change. The line then started snaking back through the mall towards the Apple Store.

Friendly Apple Store staff bounced through the waiting line during the hours that preceded the store openning and sale start. The Apple Store itself had been closed to all customers for the entire day. The only thing sold at the Apple Store yesterday was the iPad 2, accessories for it, and Apple Care. My segment of the line started moving in fits and starts around 5:30pm. Shortly after than an Apple person told us that the 64GB WiFi-only model of the iPad 2 was already sold out. In the hours to follow, we received more visits with more bad news. The 32GB Verizon 3G model was the next to sell out. We were told at one point that airline delays due to the mega-earthquake in Japan had delayed one of the iPad 2 shipments and that people at and behind my line segment might not have any stock to buy. Repeated visits brought news that the 32GB 3G black edition of the Verizon iPad 2 were sold out. Later we learnd that all 32GB models, WiFi-only and 3G, were sold out.

By 7:20pm when I was told I could enter the Apple Store with my sales escort to make my purchase, nearly everything was sold out. I had come to the mall with the intention of buying a WiFi-only 32GB black iPad 2 model. This was not an option anymore. So, instead of spending $599 for my target model, I ended up spending $829 (ouch!) for a 64GB 3G black Verizon iPad 2 model. I also parted with another $29 for a blue Smart Cover and bought Apple Care fo good measure.

The total elapsed time for my iPad 2 buying experience was 4.5 hours. This was the longest I had stayed in line for any Apple product on launch day. You can see my 4.5 hours compressed into 30 seconds in the video above.

Having spent much of the past 24 hours anticipating a Tsunami along with many people in the Pacific rim area, I can say this: The experience of waiting in the iPad 2 line and the continious string of bad news from the Apple staff made that experience worse than anticipating the Tsunami. Of course, I saw this as one of the fortunate people who was not harmed it terms of myself, my family, or my property. I escaped unscathed. It may be that having gone through the Tsunami waiting game and having had about three hours of sleep, I had hoped that the iPad 2 buying experience would be a postive counterpoint experience to end the day.

But, the bottom line is that many hundreds of people in line with me probably had similar thoughts. Someone at Apple needs to be accountable for this mess. My advice? Provide a pre-order process for every major launch. Yes, scaling servers is tough and expensive. Annoying your customers may, in the long run, be even more costly.