Opéra Store Raises Apple Retail Experience

July 4, 2010

An intensely loyal group of Apple fans braved a thunderstorm and pelting rain to tour the company’s remarkable Opéra (Paris) store Saturday morning, and to buy up Apple’s latest mobile gear that is in short supply elsewhere. The waiting line began at 2:20 p.m. on Friday afternoon, and filled slowly into three barricade lines to separate visitors from buyers of the new iPhone 4 and the iPad. Rain sprinkles happily cooled off the day and evening hours, and allowed those in the waiting line to play games on the iPads, test the FaceTime feature on their iPhone 4’s and get some sleep. But at 8:45 a.m. a full-sized thunderstorm hit Paris, sending the waiting line under Apple logo umbrellas to stay dry. Finally, at 10 a.m. the four entrance doors opened and the excitement was converted into awe—the building, which is remarkable in so many ways, including its uniqueness within Apple’s chain of stores. The lighting, the stone, the wrought-iron and brass, and the small details make it true stand-out in every category.

It’s not clear who to credit for the Opéra store’s design, the original architect 130 years ago or someone at Apple’s firm of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. Maybe much of the credit should go to those who toiled 18-hour days for six months to re-create the building. They restored every single square-inch of the building, erasing nicotine stains on the walls, for example, created by Bank of Italy executives puffing on cigars for decades. They added small details here and there, including solid brass handrails for the mezzanine railing and the stairs.

Either way, substantial credit should be given to whoever made the decision to not to change existing features, such as leaving on the vault door, even though it intrudes into a small hallway, or to retain brass grates in the floor, even though they might be walking hazard.

The store is a wonder, both in its grandeur and attention to small details. The spacious central space is brightly lit by the sun during the day, but there are small, dimly-lit areas that are equally as impressive. The ground floor feels like a stage, while the mezzanine feels like balcony seats at the theater. When you descend into the basement, you’re taken into a distinctly non-traditional retail space, where there are twists and turns and triple doors.

Once past the amazing entrance doors, you should look down at the mosaic tile flooring, and up at the sculpted ceiling, 40 feet above. Detail below your feet and broad patterns of masonry above you. Ahead, there are sets of columns to the ceiling, and other columns supporting the mezzanine, with its curving brass handrail and wrought-iron support structure.

Interestingly, those entrance doors don’t operate the same: the middle pair open in, and the outer two pairs out outward.

The mosaic tile is of two varieties—perfect squares and almost-random shaped pieces. There are several places throughout the building where the floor has slightly dipped, or where the placement of the tiles is imperfect. It’s but one example of the features Apple chose not to change.

The smaller columns have edge plates on them, and periodically there are what appear to be rivets under the paint or other spray-on covering. Tapping on the edging makes a metallic sound, as if the material is metal, perhaps old iron strapping.

The larger columns are clad in marble for the first six feet, a light cream color with reddish streaks. That marble is not the same color as the tile on the side walls, which is much darker and more brown, with darker red streaks.

Apple has set its usual light-wood product display tables between the columns and under the skylight. Sometimes the clearance between table and column is tight, certainly today when there are hundreds of visitors. The area around the stairs suffers from similar tight spots. The kid’s area is at the back of the main floor display tables, and beyond that is one of the three Genius Bars. The rear wall windows face to the street are as impressive as the front. It seems that the single-width rear door is being left open for customers, although it’s not obvious that visitors can enter here.

The mosaic tile continues along both sides of the store, where there are the standard wall-mounted product display counters. The tile work leads you to two stairways up to the mezzanine that demand exploration.

First, you ascend five steps and reach a landing guarded by two wrought-iron gates. You traverse the landing and ascend another step of steps that are slightly curved. A second landing and another set of step, and you’re at the mezzanine. Did you notice the lighting in the stairway, or the colored glass in the outside window?

The two stairways are neither identical or mirror images of each other. The do both ascend in a right, spiral-type orientation. However, the spacing is entirely different for both stairs. The right side stair has an equipment room or riser, so the spacing is different. At the top, the right stairway has a narrow entry door, while the left stairway has a very wide door. And lastly, at the top of the right stairway there is a second entrance door (always closed), facing onto the Genius Bar area.

To meet accessibility requirements, the store has an elevator, located adjacent to the right-rear stairway.

Another Genius Bar and two training areas are on the mezzanine level, along with the entrance to the Business Briefing room. The lighting here is partly from the skylight, but also from some amazing suspended brass fixtures, augmented by recessed lighting. The effect is to spotlight certain task areas, but to provide soft, warm light elsewhere.

To reach the basement level, you descend the stairs at the right-rear of the store. The staircase curves, but not quite in a spiral. There is a back-lit, colored-glass window in the wall as you step down, brass handrails, and mosaic tile in the floor as your reach a small landing room. From here, you step down again, either into the brightly-lit accessories room or into a hallway to the vault door entrance.

Down here, the walls are white tile with an eye-level green strip—nothing traditional. The accessories and software room is intensely lit, perhaps to counteract its lack of windows and massive construction.

At several points in the basement there are other hallways leading off to service and products stocking areas, all off-limits to visitors.

Throughout the building, the placement and design of the fire sprinkler heads and surveillance cameras is meticulous and unobtrusive. Somehow the piping and wiring was very carefully engineered and placed so it hasn’t intruded on the overall appearance of the interior.

With the main floor, partial mezzanine and strangely-shaped basement, the retail space totals about 5,000 square-feet, far short of some of Apple’s other high-profile locations.

The Opéra store sets a new standard for the Apple retail experience. One can only hope that visitors appreciate it, and that employees feel they are trustees of a re-born location.

View an extensive gallery of photos of the new store. Also surf setteB.it for galleries of photos: early morning, pre-opening and inside the store.

The Waiting Line

Fabrice began the line at 2:20 p.m. in the blazing, 90-degree sun that was hitting the storefront. Without competition, he moved across Rue Meyerbeer until puffy clouds rolled over Paris and cut the temperature. The plaza was busy with tourists and locals, all taking a peek into the store through the wrought-iron. Five security guards politely prevented them from taking photos.

Earlier in the morning, officials of the French National Police met outside with Apple’s security team and reviewed an elaborate drawing that showed Rue Meyerbeer’s closure and the placement of over 200 bicycle barricades in the street to accommodate the waiting line. Two vans of police officers were parked nearby, but left within two hours, perhaps realizing they were slightly early.

Fabrice had fulfilled one of his two Apple goals—be first in waiting line in Paris, and to attend a grand opening in the United States. He was #3 in the waiting line for the Louvre store back in November 2009, and took no chances by arriving in the early afternoon. He wore a self-designed turquoise T-shirt, specially picked to match the color of shoes he’s worn for years. The T-shirt showed Mr. T wearing his usual jewelry, and one piece was a giant gold Apple logo.

Sr. Director of International Retail Steve Cano met with a team of staffers outside on the plaza at about the same moment that Fabrice arrived. Someone in the group noticed him and questioned his arrived, then applauded when they learned he was first in line.

A friendly Apple staffer gave Fabrice and I an umbrella against the sun and eventual rain. It was definitely useful for both.

Rain clouds moved in for the first time during the day around 5 p.m., when visitors began arriving for the traditional family-and-friends of employees reception. There was some distant thunder and lightning, and then finally rain sprinkles that cooled off the plaza. Still, it was just Fabrice and I in line. The rain was light enough that the waiting line huddled against the building and didn’t get wet.

About 7:20 p.m. the third person arrived in line, and a van pulled up at the plaza curb with the New York-based film crew that traditionally covers major grand openings. They immediately set up two cameras, one taking a 24-hour time-lapse of the storefront, and the other a 12-hour virtual panorama.

By 8:30 p.m. the plaza became quiet, with fewer passersby and just a cleaning crew inside the store. Two more people arrived for the waiting line, and by 10 p.m., there were eight people in line.

Those in this early waiting line were young, informed about Apple and appropriately equipped with gear: iPads, iPhone 4s, iPod touch’s and MacBook Pros. The store’s Wi-Fi was working well (18 Mbps down, 11 Mbps up), so there was lots of on-line activity, along with iPad games.

About 11:30 p.m. we received a briefing from Apple’s security leader on how the queue would change overnight. He said when the line became longer, we’d be moved into the a queue in Rue Meyerbeer. Then a set of three queues would be set up on the plaza in front of the store, and we’d be moved back. He spoke in English, but an Apple translator gave the same information in French.

He was emphatic—we’d all remain in our original positions despite any movement to another location. He also explained that there would be three lines: one for those only visiting the store, one for those who wanted to purchase an iPhone or iPad with a contract plan, and one for those buying an iPhone/iPad without a plan.

The waiting line slept, talked and walked around until 1:30 a.m., when the contract security team shut down Rue Meyerbeer and began lining up the metal barricades. At almost the same time, it began to sprinkle rain, and the security guards handed out Apple-logo umbrellas to the 38 people in line.

At 2:10 a.m. the entire waiting line was moved into the Rue Meyerbeer barricades, and we were happy to see that the first 10 people in line were there just to see the store, not make an iPhone or iPad purchase. However, the final tally was slightly different: 10 for visiting, 28 for no-contract iPhone/iPad and two for iPhone/iPad contract. Most of those in the second line were from other countries, indicating Apple’s wide appeal and the popularity of the new iPhone 4.

Very few people arrived in the line over the next four hours. The sun comes up very early in Paris during the summer, so naturally the waiting line stirred by 5 a.m. when the cloudy skies became lighter. By 6:30 a.m. I counted just 40 visitors, 70 no-contract and four contract in the various lines. They filled barely one third of the long barricade line down the street.

Inside the store, more employees were arriving dressed in bright blue shirts. There was yelling and clapping and lots of enthusiasm.

At 7:30 a.m. the security team moved the lines back to separate lines in front of the store. Like before, they handed out small, laminated numbered cards to ensure everyone remained in their original position. But the number of people in line was so small that it was easy for the waiting line to police itself on this matter.

The film crew returned to the store about this time, placing a time-lapse camera on a balcony of the Opera House across the street, and taking roving shots of the waiting line. At this point there were 140 in all three lines on the plaza, and perhaps another 160 across the street.

A car pulled up with Starbucks employees, and they began handing out a series of free coffee and rolls.

Just before 8:45 a.m. the clouds rolled in, the lightning began and the rain started to fall—hard. The store employees began handing out more Apple logo umbrellas to the waiting lines, and they all quickly went up. The thunder became louder and the lightning more obvious as the rain came down harder. It was among the heaviest rains I’ve ever experienced at a grand opening, and the only time it didn’t stop just before the opening.

Fortunately there was little wind to bother the umbrellas, but there was still no way to stay dry with so many people standing so close together. Water from another’s umbrella would inevitably pour down the back of your neck.

With 15 minute before opening, scores of store employees came outside each of the four doors to increase the enthusiasm and show their appreciation. They stood in the rain, getting wet yelling, “Open up!” The crowd picked up the chant as the rain continued pounding down. It was obvious that the employees stood in the rain to show their appreciation for the waiting line’s support.

With five minutes to do, security moved Fabrice to the closed front door, where the store employees gathered to applaud and perform “the wave.” Outside, everyone in the store visitor line chanted his name—”Fa-brice! Fa-brice!” It was an energetic place to be, and you could read the excitement on Fabrice’s face.

At 10 a.m. the doors were opened. Fabrice stepped inside and walked down a narrow gauntlet of excited, smiling store employees, all clapping, all yelling and most give “high fives.” Up on the mezzanine, other employees were yelling and clapping. The level of volume was intense as you moved through the line to the back of the store.

The crowd quickly swept into every space of the new store, leaving their umbrellas behind at the door. A worker continuously mopped the mosaic tile around the entrances to keep them dry. Several people stood around the store wearing Apple ID cards from a lanyard, some of them proud members of the construction and restoration team.

Inside the Business Center, there were at least five employees wearing black polo shirts with “Business” stitched on the sleeve, anxious to engage anyone on why they came into the room. It seemed obvious they were ready to move into the small and medium-sized business market in Paris.

After a certain number of people were allowed in, the yelling and clapping subsided. But as some people left the store, groups of new visitors were let in and the yelling and clapping would repeat. This kept up nearly all day.

When I left the store at 1:15 p.m., there were 110 people in the combined lines, both on the plaza and across the street. It appeared that the number was stable—as the line went down, an equal number arrived at the back of the line.

View a gallery of photos of the waiting line.

Update: MacGeneration reported that Steve Jobs appeared at the store with Ron Johnson about 9 p.m.

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