Image: Apple store
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More people are hitting up the Apple store and its competitors to fixate rather than shop.
updated 11/29/2007 7:44:11 AM ET 2007-11-29T12:44:11

Rachelle Bowden never thought she'd get hooked. Her first trip was innocent. And the excuses didn't come until later.

The first time the Web designer hit up the Apple store in New York City, it had just opened — and she went to admire some trendy technology. But eventually, her trips became regular and her admiration grew. Anytime a colleague needed to shop at Apple, Bowden made that her excuse to go. Often, she just tagged along without a buying purpose — just to get her gadget fix.

"You just want to touch the new iPod," said Bowden, 32.

More technology addicts across the country are flooding electronic retailers to fixate rather than to shop. The number of in-store users in America has not been counted, but our growing gadget obsession, especially among teens and young adults, might spark an epidemic, experts say.

And more stores are condoning the habit by letting consumers experiment freely. Apple stores, which have been around for only six years, set the trend. The brand boutique sprawls its desired devices — iPods, iPhones and Macs — across display tables. And customer service doesn't scare away shoppers with pressure to buy.

"They (just) let you use the stuff," Bowden said.

Other retailers are copying Apple's approach, which seems to be working. Apple's earnings soared 67 percent in its latest quarter.

"They have shown the world that this model has legs," said James Damian, Best Buy vice president of store design.

It works because the more people try products in the store, the more likely they'll crave them for recreational use at home.

"They're getting more passionate and hooked and are going to buy," said Daniel Burrus, CEO of technology consulting firm Burrus Research.

Sales of consumer electronics remain healthy and are predicted to jump 8 percent this year to $160 billion. And gadgets like computers and big-screen TVs top this year's holiday wish list, according to an annual survey by the Consumer Electronics Association, which also listed "peace and happiness" among the top three.

Besides Apple, window shoppers also hit up Best Buy, Circuit City, Sony and even the electronics department of Wal-Mart. These stores draw everyone from teen cliques to couples and even families. The surge in traffic makes technology addicts feel "like you're part of a community," Bowden said.

But can they annoy shoppers who just want to make their purchases and leave? Stores try to avoid a clashes by catering to everybody.

That means sales staff can wait on you hand and foot — or leave you to your own devices, said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology analyst.

Tim Schultz of Sherman Oaks, Calif., "shops" with his German shepherd mix at his local Best Buy.

"Every time we go for a walk, we end up at the video-game section of Best Buy," said Schultz, 27.

Schultz admits he'sa technology junkie and says he tries to drag his wife along to stores. So far, she's resisted because she doesn't share his obsession, which Schultz says is fueled by the rapid waves of next-generation gizmos.

"I'm just addicted to new product," said Schultz, a video editor for a television show.

But he holds off buying because, with gadgets coming out faster, he's overwhelmed by choices.

When Schultz considered purchasing the iPod classic, he returned to Apple to ponder the nano.

"I had to go back to feel one of those before I decided," he said.

Today, shoppers like Shultz are taking more time to ensure they get what they want — and to avoid a buying mistake.

"They're researching more on the Web before going into the store," said Doug Meacham, who specializes in consumer experience at eletronics stores and has worked for Circuit City.

But as stores are learning, getting people hooked on the devices in person is becoming more important in sealing the deal.

It wasn't always this way. Back in the 1980s, fixating on gadgets at electronic stores was only for nerds. But now that technology is easier to use and better looking, Average Joes just can't help themselves.

"Gadgety things are much more than just utility, they're a bit of a fashion statement," said Meacham. "'I've got the coolest device this week.'"

But functionality remains a factor because people don't want to clutter their lives with gizmos.

"As we start to combine things into Swiss army devices, we desire to minimize the things we carry," Meacham said.

Technology addicts like Bowden also want to minimize the damage to their wallets.

After recently moving to Chicago, she quit taking Apple trips as regularly because the nearest store is too far away. But right after the iPhone launched, Bowden, who now works for Google, went on a business trip to Palo Alto, Calif. And once again she latched onto a group headed to a close-by Apple store to use the new device. So will Bowden buy one?

"I won't get an iPhone for a long time — if at all," she said.

But Bowden can always fixate for free.

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