The towering black wall has been impossible to miss. Rising from shiny, white floor tiles at the East Coast's largest shopping mall, it has projected a cloak of mystery all the more stark for being a short walk from Louis Vuitton, Hermes, and Neiman Marcus - stores forbidding for their prices, if not their facades.
For months, the black monolith has broadcast nothing to shoppers at the Plaza at King of Prussia. Not even the benign nugget of history that behind it once hummed a now-defunct John Wanamaker department store. Nor has it conveyed that, come 9 a.m. Saturday, the barricades will part to reveal an Apple store quite possibly larger than anyone has seen locally since the company opened its first store in Pennsylvania just a few paces away in a small space at the very mall where size has been a bragging right.
The opening comes after a cloak-and-dagger dance of discretion by Apple, a retailer that plays by its own rules because, well, it wins a lot more than it loses. How big will the new store be? Will it be distinctive designwise? Set any records? Apple would rather you not ask - and it most certainly will not tell even if you do.
The Silicon Valley electronics giant reportedly chafed when signage went up some time ago indicating an Apple store was on the way. Anything hinting of Apple was removed in favor of an all-black palette of mystery. And when I put in requests for interviews with mall officials, they eagerly acquiesced - only to change their minds after hearing from Apple.
Even Wednesday, the only thing passersby could see was light glimmering through the cracks, as though a shiny white world of Apple gadgets was antsy to escape its captivity. I couldn't help but think of a scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when apelike creatures are entranced by the emergence of a black monolith in their craggy moonscape.
It was only under some duress Wednesday that Apple spokesman Nick Leahy let on that the new store would replace the first Apple ever opened in Pennsylvania, a postage-stamp-size site just down the hall in the Plaza where, I had told him, there were so many bodies stuffed inside on Black Friday that I could feel sweat and heat wafting into the mall walkway. (On Friday, Leahy had left me a message that Apple would say nothing about King of Prussia. That same day, normally chatty mall officials with Simon Property Group also went into hiding.)
People I knew across the region, I told Leahy, had received e-mails from Apple announcing the planned opening. And one of Apple's own employees had just happily informed me from inside its existing store that I would get a free T-shirt if I showed up early enough Saturday for the big opening at the new one down the way.
"I can confirm that the new store is opening on Saturday at 9 a.m.," Leahy said. That was all.
An Apple store employee told me the new joint would be much larger than the one that hit the market a decade ago at King of Prussia, when few people could imagine the smartphone-and-tablet pioneer that would become one of the world's most powerful and innovative companies.
"Take this store," he chirped, stretching his hands apart, "and multiply it by three."
Mystique is nothing new when it comes to Apple. With the launch of virtually every new product, it seems, months of rumor and mystery abound. The company's customers are among the most feverishly loyal, its products consistently bedazzling.
Even with its stock taking a hit amid a recent management shake-up that included the reported firings of two men who had overseen Apple's bungled mapping app, the company continues to command potent influence over consumers.
East Norriton salon owner and real estate agent Thelma Payne, 45, paid full price on Black Friday for an iPad Mini at the King of Prussia store - $329, even though, in a rare gesture, other products were marked down. It was to be a Christmas present for her daughter, Aveda Christopher, 17, who is such a plugged-in Apple fiend that even she knew of the new store being planned at the mall.
Payne's only concern that day: inventory availability. "I just wanted to make sure I was able to get it for her for Christmas," Payne said. "It's just a hot item. You're not going to get a deal."
It was jarring that day to see Apple still using a store so small. The vibe was stifling as post-Thanksgiving customers packed it tighter than almost any other retailer I passed.
But when your products are that hot, store size is but an afterthought to service and the availability of merchandise and technical support for the many return trips that Apple's discriminating customers are known to make, whether to upgrade their gadgets or seek out tech help from its renowned Genius Bar staff.
"It's an amazing phenomenon that an electronics retailer does that much return traffic," said Steven Gartner, president of Metro Commercial Real Estate Inc.
Bricks and mortar are but one part of Apple's success. Gartner said Apple's stores had drawn so many customers that they have been said to significantly impact the overall sales per square foot that shopping-mall owners use to set tenant rents.
Apple's devices and products are sold elsewhere, too, in addition to online, of course.
"Did you know," Gartner added, "that in all of Manhattan, they have only four stores?"
A company that strong doesn't need a ton of stores, or a megaphone, to get people's attention. A big black wall and a slate of hot white gadgets are all it takes.
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