European independent Apple resellers on verge of Bankruptcy

Way back in 2005, only a few months after I joined the OSNews team, I interviewed Wim Schermer, founder and then-owner of the largest chain of Apple “Premium Reseller” stores in The Netherlands, MacSupport (now iCentre). In fact, Wim Schermer was the first Dutchman to buy a Macintosh – the original Macintosh, that is – in The Netherlands, and went on to start his Apple reseller business in 1988. While the interview covered many aspects, one thing always stuck with me: Schermer was concerned about what would happen to his business if Apple were to open an official Apple Store in The Netherlands. Seven years later, his concerns are becoming reality.

I remember the interview well. We’re talking 7.5 years ago, so I was 20, with only a few months of experience writing for OSNews on a daily basis (I had written several articles for OSNews in the years before). Schermer was happy to be interviewed, but I was still incredibly nervous. After a tour of the facilities, we sat down in one of the company’s meeting rooms upstairs, were served coffee, and with my trusty iBook 12.1″ (loved that thing to death) recording the audio, I did the interview.

It was an open and honest talk – one of the advantages of buying your Apple equipment from independent resellers. Schermer was clearly an Apple enthusiast, but he did not try to downplay or ignore the company’s shortcomings, and we had a lot of fun talking about all sorts of geeky stuff, ranging from his experiences buying the very first Macintosh way back in 1984, down to founding MacSupport in the attic of his parents’ house (they’re currently at 25 stores), meandering from Mac OS X Server to his appreciation for Linux. Heck, he even explained the Mac Mini’s sole purpose: draw people into the store with its low price (back then, that is), and then make sure they leave with an iMac G5 instead.

Not a single shred of arrogance; not a single snide remark about Microsoft or Windows. Just two geeks – one old, one young – talking about cool stuff.

I drove home later that day, transcribed the entire interview from the recording, and translated it into English. I formatted and organised it into a readable article, and published it the day after. Not everything made it into the interview; we also discussed a few Apple-related things off the record I promised not to put in the interview, but nothing really earth-shattering.

Shopping at MacSupport – later renamed iCentre per Apple’s demands – was a delight. In 2004 and 2005, most of the people in the shop, including the employees, were still long-time Apple fans, people who had stuck with the company during its dark decade. These people had an odd kind of love-hate relationship with Apple and its products; none of that undying devotion nonsense you see with many of the Apple fans that joined the party over the past few years.

In 2008 Schermer sold iCentre and its stores to an investment group, who still control the company to this day.

In any case, back to the interview. The one thing that always stuck with me was Schermer’s answer to my question about what it would mean for competition if Apple were to open an official Apple Store in The Netherlands. There have been mumblings about this topic for years now, with the first Apple Store supposedly opening up shop later this year. Here’s the question and answer in full.

13. You guys have been an Apple reseller for 17 years. How do you feel about Apple taking retail upon themselves with the Apple Stores? Do you expect any (un)fair competition when they open up stores in The Netherlands?

Wim: That’s of course a sensitive subject. [chuckles] Let me put it this way: if Apple plays fair with its dealers, then we barely have to compete with each other. But, it all depends on that fair play. There were occasions in America where Apple opened a retail store in a place where there also were successful dealers. And then Apple got critique on how they supplied their own stores in comparison to the independent dealers. And I think that that critique is founded.

Apple must play that game fair. If the game is played fair, and Apple supplies all stores equally, especially with new machines, then independent dealers can easily exist. The market is big enough. Look at Amsterdam. First there was only one small shop, now there are three bigger ones, and they all put food on the table.

It turns out that Schermer’s fears have materialised. Not in The Netherlands (yet), but in France. Les Echos has an article up [French] about how the first and largest authorised Apple reseller in France, eBizcuss, has filed an injunction against Apple, and is threatening to file a complaint at the competition authority in France. The reason? Apple is supplying its own stores better than its resellers. eBizcuss claims to be on the verge of bankruptcy because of it.

In addition, the reseller claims Apple is placing ever higher and more ridiculous demands on the shopping experience, which the resellers simply cannot meet. Apple goes so far as to contract mystery shoppers from the UK to assess the retailers’ compliance to Apple’s demands.

AppleInsider’s Neil Hughes dove into the matter, and uncovered that the problem stretches way beyond France’s borders. Independent retailers in Sweden and Germany are also on the verge of bankruptcy, and AppleInsider’s source claims Dutch independent retailers will be similarly affected when the Apple Store in Amsterdam opens February 18.

All this isn’t particularly hard to believe, nor should it surprise anyone. Apple wants total control, end-to-end, including retail. They don’t care about the retailers that played a large role in keeping the company afloat during the dark days, and that played a vital role in Apple’s resurgence in Europe. In essence, it’s analogous to how Apple is treating its professional and more hardcore customers by the continued iOS-ification of their ecosystem.

Me, I’m just sad. I will never buy an Apple product at an official Apple Store because I know I’m not getting an honest shopping experience. I want to buy at an independent reseller so I can have an open and honest chat about Apple and its products, to make sure I’m going home with the right choice, and not Apple’s choice. Of course, I’m relatively well-versed when it comes to technology, but what about those who are not?

Other than that, it makes me sad that people who have run these Apple retailers since the ’80s are now being treated as second-class citizens, discarded like a used piece of toilet paper. These people set up and run these companies as enthusiasts, fans of the brand. To see their life’s work crumble before their eyes, even though Apple is doing better than ever, is just heart-breaking.

So, it turns out that Schermer’s fears from way back in 2005 were well-founded. I do wonder, though – did it play a role in the decision to sell the company in 2008?


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