Apple’s iPhone 5S went on sale in Japan on September 20, with electronics aficionados, including our own Mr. Sato, lining up days in advance in order to purchase one on launch day.
Obviously, you have to love your electronics to be willing to camp out on the sidewalk, especially with a typhoon hitting the Tokyo area right before the new model’s release. Blogger Junichi Suzaki wondered if there might be something other than the promise of shiny new tech convincing people to spend multiple days and nights in line, though, and found a surprising motivation for the people at the head of the line.
Prior to the new iPhone’s release, Suzaki headed out one evening in search of would-be iPhone purchasers. Sure enough, he found a queue of them in front of the Apple Store in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district, because if you have to sleep on the sidewalk, it may as well be a sidewalk in a swanky part of town.
The typhoon had just passed through Tokyo, and Suzaki was eager to talk to the person at the front of the line and find out what made him so determined to get his hands on the new iPhone that he’d been willing to endure the downpour.
Except, the first chair in the line was empty.
OK, in that case, Suzaki would talk to the second person in line! What motivation had kept him going through the deluge?
The second chair was also empty.
Given the notorious shyness of empty folding chairs, Suzaki made the judgment that neither would supply him with the insight he was seeking, and instead turned his attention to the person with the third spot in line, an engineer with the family name Shimazaki.
The two exchanged greetings, and Suzaki was surprised at how eager the engineer was to answer his questions. “Aren’t you tired of being interviewed?” he asked the engineer.
“No, not at all. Actually, I haven’t been out here that long today. I have to work during the day, so I was at the office all afternoon.”
We’d always assumed the people we saw lining up for electronics launch days were either students, telecommuters, or so keen to get their hands on the newest tech toys before anyone else that they took time off from work to line up. If Shimazaki had to be at work each afternoon, how did he hold onto a position so near the front of the line?
“A group of us take turns holding each other’s spots when the others aren’t here,” he explained. “If you come to enough of these things, you meet people, and you become launch day line-up buddies.”
We’ve heard of drinking and fishing buddies, but this is a first for us. Shimazaki had come to camp out with the at-the-moment absent first two gentlemen in line, whom he’d met while lining up for the release of the latest iPad model.
Hmm….lining up for Apple’s tablet, camping out for Apple’s smartphone. Suzaki had spotted a pattern.
“So, you must really love the iPhone?” he asked the engineer.
“No, not really,” he responded casually.
“Sure, I bought an iPad, but my smartphone is an Android. Here, take a look.”
He wasn’t joking.
But, if Shimazaki wasn’t a true iPhone believer, what was he waiting in line for?
“I’m here for the high-five,” he explained, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“Um, do you mean, like, when the doors open, and the new model goes on sale, how the sales staff high-five the first batch of customers when they hand over their purchase?”
“That’s right. If you don’t line up early, you miss your chance for that.”
After taking a moment to try to wrap his head around this, Suzaki continued his line of questioning.
“But, why is that so important to you?”
“It’s so fun! I saw people doing it on TV, and I wanted to try it, too. That’s why I decided to camp out for a launch day the first time.”
His smile as he related this was beyond description.
“Ah, OK. So you get a kick out of being on TV, right?”
“Actually I don’t,” answered Shimazaki. “Honestly, I’d rather they don’t film me.”
It appeared that, for Shimazaki, it really is was just about the high-five.
“But camera crews do come to these kind of things, don’t they?” Suzaki asked.
“Yeah, and it’s kind of a pain. We have to rehearse what to say to them. The reporters all assume we’re diehard Apple fans, so we just kind of make up the sort of answers we figure they want to hear. We want to give the TV stations something to work with, you know,” explained the worldly engineer.
During the conversation, the second person in line, a young man named Tamura, returned, and Suzaki took the opportunity to interview him as well.
“Are you friends with Mr. Shimzaki?” Suzaki asked.
“Yeah, we’re launch day line-up buddies!” he responded.
Tamura revealed that he was, in fact, an iPhone user, restoring a bit of logic to the situation, before muddying the waters with his next comment.
“But I don’t really like my iPhone enough to say I’m a diehard fan or anything.”
Tamura’s reason for camping out, could it also be…?
“So why are you waiting in line?”
“Well, you know, I came for the high-five.”
In short, rather than the phone, these guys are simply diehard high-five fans.
“Waiting in line with everyone, it’s like being at a street festival or a carnival,” Tamura went on, wearing the same gigantic smile Shimazaki had. “It’s a lot of fun.”
“Really, really fun,” chimed in Shimazaki.
The two had a point. The excitement of everyone in line was starting to feel contagious, and blogger Suzaki found himself suddenly craving a high-five, too. Nonetheless, he kept his desire in check and continued the interview.
“But, don’t you wish you could have been first in line?” he asked Tamura.
“Nah. The guy who’s first in line is my dad.”
Seriously? Father and son were both camping out?
“Wow. So where’s you dad right now?”
“He’s browsing inside the Apple shop, looking at their other products,” the son responded. “On the day the iPhone 5S was announced, he suddenly called me up and just said ‘That’s it. We’re camping out for this.’”
The elder Tamura wasn’t kidding either, as he and his son had shown up 10 days before Suzaki’s interview.
“I haven’t heard of anyone else getting in line so far ahead of time,” the son mused. “I kind of surprised myself, even.”
Frankly, the Tamuras surprised us all.
“But how did your dad convince you to line up so early?”
“He said he was going to, so I thought, ‘Whatever, I will too.’”
Truly, a touching example of patriarchal fealty.
“So, does your dad like the high-five too?” Suzaki asked.
“He’s never really said one way or the other, but yeah, I think he probably does.”
“But what do you guys do for showers?”
“We all take turns holding each other’s spots in line, so the others can go home or to the public bath to get cleaned up.”
“Ah, I see. Kind of like when Mr. Shimazaki has to go to work.”
“I’m a student, so in the afternoon, I hold everyone’s spots in line. Of course, I usually end up staying out here all night, too.”
“It must be really tiring.”
“Yeah, but we all get along well together. It’s fun.”
“Yeah, really, really fun,” echoed Shimazaki, again.
And that’s when it sank in. People who aren’t technophiles look at these lines for new electronics, do the math, and scratch their heads. Sure, the stores might sell out on launch day, and it might take a week or so for the next shipment to come in. But in order to avoid waiting an extra week, you line up seven, or ten, days in advance? It’s a zero-sum game. Either way, you’re waiting, right?
But that’s missing the point. The real draw of camping out for launch day isn’t some perceived time savings or even the gadgets themselves. It’s the experience, the camaraderie, the memory. Those are things you can’t get by waltzing into the electronics shop and grabbing an item off a well-stocked shelf a month after it goes on sale.
What makes people spend a week on the sidewalk in front of the Apple Store? It’s the otherwise unattainable human element, whether in the form of making new line-up buddies, or the brief, simple excitement of a high-five.