Curious Crowd Fills First Istanbul Store Waiting Line

April 6, 2014

There was continuous waiting line for six hours after the Zorlu Center (Istanbul) held its grand opening on Saturday, but visitors were happy to wait up to an hour to finally inspect the store’s long-mysterious design and get their hands on Apple’s products. The Foster + Partners design includes the most glass of any store in the chain, and relies heavily on the rectangular proportion of the glass panes for its design elements in the ceiling, floor and even shelving design. The overnight waiting line started at 9 p.m. Friday when Mustafa and Mert formed up with bicycle fencing placed at the mall’s boundary by security guards. By 2 a.m. the line had grown to just six people, and by 6 a.m. there were 18 in line. After the line was inside and onto the mall plaza at 7 a.m., adjacent to the four-sided glass “lantern” used to transfer light into the under-plaza store. By the time the store opened at 10 a.m., a line of 450 people snaked around the plaza’s garden and out towards the mall’s entrance.

The upscale Zorlu Center mall provides a encompassing shopping experience—nothing of the city’s surroundings are visible from within the mall, even from the top-side plaza. The development is also emphasizes some of Istanbul’s many contradictions—modern architecture in an ancient city, and wealthy, fashionable visitors that represent the country’s top economic demographic. Within the mall, it’s easy to lose track of where you are and what’s beyond the walls.

Despite the high profile location, none of Apple’s top executives were visible at the grand opening—no Tim Cook, no Angela Ahrendts. Instead, VP Retail Stores Bob Bridger and Sr. Director Retail Stores Steve Cano attended the event, with Cano giving the press briefing on Thursday.

The country’s government-ordered ban on Twitter was lifted barely 48 hours before the grand opening of the store, allowing those in the waiting line to post messages and photos of the event. The action was ordered by the country’s Supreme Court, but the timing of the action seemed oddly not coincidental to the store’s grand opening in order not to insult Apple. A ban on YouTube continued to be in effect during the grand opening.

Speaking of the Internet, random speed tests of the store’s open Wi-Fi network showed performance of no more than 5/5 Mbps, using British Telecom PLC as the service provider. However, sources said the store’s connection was actually rated at 40 Mbps down. More importantly, the Internet connection is managed, allowing ordinary browsing of any Web page, but redirecting any Web login attempts to the store’s main Web page. I was unable to log in to Twitter, YouTube, this WordPress blog or other sites.

View the first view set of store photos on flickr.

The Waiting Line

Mustafa and Mert were first to form the waiting line at 9 p.m. on Friday evening, moving into an area set aside by security guards near the west end of the mall. An hour later, Matt (Scotland) and Gary (USA) joined them as temperatures dipped to 52 F. degrees. Midnight passed, and the next pair of line sitters didn’t arrive until 1:45 a.m. Benches in the area and the surrounding stone plaza were covered in moisture, making it impossible for anyone in the waiting line to sit or lie down to rest or sleep.

Several in the waiting line agreed that the Zorlu Center store was a “gift” from Apple, made in connection with the country’s project to equip all of its school students with tablet computers. However, they all made a strong argument that Turkey, and Istanbul specifically, was a proper location for an Apple retail store, based on its geographic location, economy, presence of tourists and large base of existing Apple product users. Whatever the reason for locating the store at Zorlu Center, the waiting line was grateful.

The waiting line grew slowly as the sun began to rise. By 4:30 a.m. there were 14 people in line, at 6 a.m. Apple employees appeared to hand out water bottles to the 18 people in line. At 6:45 a.m. some from the waiting line brought juice boxes and bagels to the waiting line, now up to 38 people.

Finally, at 7 a.m. the waiting line was moved into the center of Zorlu Center, group by group. The line circled the glass lantern and then snaked around the plaza. As the crowd energy increased, Apple’s video and photo crews arrived and began documenting the scene. For the first time, the crews were using iPads to collect photo releases fromt the waiting line, including taking the signer’s photograph.

In a strange and unprecedented move, an Apple corporate employee appeared just after 7 a.m. carrying four cardboard signs taped to wooden handles. The signs showed the Turkish flag, various stickers, and were hand-lettered with, “I  Apple” and “I LOVE Apple because I LOVE Technology” and “1955–∞,” a reference to Steve Jobs’ date of birth. One sign showed the official photo of Steve Jobs (see photo below). The employee spotted several males at about the #50 spot in line, one wearing a blue shirt with a large white Apple logo. The employee handed out the signs to the group, and were later featured in many photos and videos taken of the waiting line.

zorlu_eating_mugThe line continued to grow, but only slighter faster than before. The line hit 100 by 8 a.m., and an hour later there were 266 in line. Those waiting could hear clapping and shouting from inside the store, as the employees began to ramp up their enthusiasm. Just after 9 a.m. the line was moved downstairs to another waiting line that circled around the mall and ended in front of the store. Mustafa and Mert were now facing the store’s 100 employees, who were shouting and clapping.

Apple’s security team provided perfect coordination for a large staff of Turkish security guards to form up the line, keep it orderly and move it from station to station through the mall without blocking access to other retailers. As the front-of-line arrived at the door to the store, a total stranger somehow appeared as #3 in line. However, the Turkish security team immediately noticed he had crashed the line and removed him.

At precisely 10 a.m. the front doors of the store were opened, the employees gave a countdown—3, 2, 1!—and Mustafa and Mert were led into the store as the employees shouted out their names. Those coming in received a black T-shirt box and a grand opening store schedule. The boxes had different pastel-colored stickers, apparently indicating the size of the shirt. The shirt itself was black with an Apple logo made of multi-colored dots, identical to the design on the covering of the glass lantern before the store was unveiled on Wednesday.

The waiting line was metered into the store, a few at a time, over the next several hours. When a youngster came into the store, an employee would ask his/her name, and the employees then shouted out the name as a welcome.

Inside the store, the back-lit Apple logo on the upper level instantly became a photo subject. Dozens of people stood in front of the logo—backwards when viewed from inside the store—and had their photo taken. Scores of people lined up in front of the wall shelving, appearing to be amazed at the variety of products, but also ready to make purchases. Many people left the store with Apple’s white plastic shopping bags, and one person was seen leaving with an iMac box.

Startlingly, the upper level floor noticeably bounces with the weight of people moving in the store. The bounce was especially obvious as store employees were dancing in a line as they welcomed the first visitors. But anyone standing still in the middle of the upper-level space could feel the movement during quiet periods, too.

The waiting line continued to be replenished as the line was admitted to the store, with the waiting time of about one hour. The line remained at about 320 people until about 3 p.m., when it started to shorten to about 180. Finally, just after 4 p.m. the line was down to just 40 people at any one time. Store employees still had T-shirts to hand out, however.

The Store

The store is essentially a glass and stainless steel box slipped into a 60-foot square void originally intended as a water feature descending from the plaza into two lower levels of the mall. Each level of the store is about 3,600 square-feet, with at least that amount of space below for the back-of-house space. One face of the Apple store is totally visible from an open area occupied by escalators, and the store is accessible from only the lower level. The opposite face abuts both the lower and upper level, and is accessible from both (on the upper level there is a short glass bridge from the mall floor to the Apple floor.).

When viewing the store, there are many surrounding reflective surfaces in the mall that lend some visual distraction. Specifically, the stone flooring and adjacent metal support columns extend the design of the store into the surrounding space. In the case of the columns, the reflections are distorted by the cylindrical shape.

Both open sides of the store are covered with three-meter by 16-meter tall glass panels, with shorter panels where the doors are located. The panels are made in China and originate from the then-new technology used to make the glass for the Pudong (Shanghai) retail store cylindrical entrance. The other major store material is Apple’s usual stainless steel, although the finish appears to different that previously used—it appears duller than the bead-blasted finish normally used.


click for a larger view

The lower level has a very tall ceiling, and is not covered with the usual stretched plastic material, but with some other material, which is back-lit by a new LED lighting system. However, the design is different—the panels are continuous from one end of the store to the other. At other stores, the panels are split by metal supports for fire sprinklers, security cameras and other utilities. The lower level is the Family Room, with the Genius Bar, accessories, training and set-up.

The upper level is shorter, but doesn’t feel cramped because of the light coming the lantern above. The upper level is the Red Zone, where all of Apple’s products are displayed for purchase—including the Mac Pro desktop.

Both levels are connected by twin glass staircases of Apple’s usual design on both sides of the store, and an elevator. A single staircase descends to the back-of-house area below the lower level. The side staircases are open to the plaza level, but topped by—again—large rectangular glass panels. The outside walls of the staircase wells is constructed of glass, so mall visitors inside can see people moving up and down between the store levels.

Atop the entire store cube is an opening to the sky, what architects call a “lantern.” It is the ultimate refinement of invisibility, composed of four large rectangular glass panels set to form a square. Atop that square is a thin white roof of unknown material, emblazoned with a black Apple logo. The logo is invisible from the plaza level, but is obvious from any upper level of the mall. The entire structure is surrounded by a black stone water pool with an “infinity” type spillover. Adjacent to the fountains are the glass panels covering the staircase wells.

Both the lantern and stairwells receive short periods of direct sunlight, based on the season and time of day, and on the position of the sun in relation to the tall surrounding buildings. During the grand opening, there was a period of about 20 minutes when sunlight streamed into the store through the lantern and the stairwell skylights. The stairwells are particularly dramatic when sunlit, both direct and indirect. The laminated layers of glass composing the stair treads, and stainless steel hardware both glow when lit by the sun.

The rectangular shape of the lantern’s glass panels are repeated elsewhere in the store’s design. The flooring is the new terrazzo material, and it was poured in very large sections. The ceiling panels are long rectangular panels, and even the side-wall product shelving areas mirror the lantern’s rectangular proportions.

The lantern is possibly explained by the distribution of other retailers in the mall. The plaza level is home to all the major, up-scale international retailers. On the lower level, retailer names aren’t as familiar or up-scale, and the food court is adjacent to the Apple space. In this case, the lantern lures shoppers into the lower levels of the mall, and into the Apple store they wouldn’t ordinarily visit.

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