Long lines await iPod mini's Tokyo debut

Apple Computer began international sales of its iPod mini digital music player on Saturday and opened the doors of its Tokyo store to a line of more than one thousand people.

At 9a.m., an hour before the store opened, the line was estimated to stretch around 300 meters and number some 500 people. However, this had grown to 1,500 people by the time the store opened, according to Apple's estimates.

First in the queue was a young man who had been waiting since 8:30p.m. on Friday evening and perhaps had not anticipated the media attention that being at the head of the line would bring. "I've been here since 8:30 yesterday evening, that's all I'm saying," he was heard repeating each time he was asked by reporters for his name or where he had come from.

Available in the U.S. since Feb. 20, Apple is launching the iPod mini across the world on Saturday. It has a storage capacity of 4G bytes and can hold around 1,000 songs, according to the company.

To encourage people to come early, Apple was offering a tee-shirt to the first 1,000 people in the line, whether they bought an iPod or not. Around 5 people of the first 30 through the door headed straight for the tee-shirt counter and ignored the iPod. However, the vast majority of customers were snapping up one or two of the players, which cost ¥26,800 (AUS$399) each. Docks for the players and the company's AirPort Express (called AirMac Express in Japan) also went on sale Saturday and appeared to be popular as well.

"It's wonderful," said Steve Cano, regional director for Japan of Apple's retail division.

"Everything is going as well as we expected. There's a lot of Mac enthusiasts in Tokyo and we try to entertain them and have some fun," he said as a D.J. played records in one corner of the store. "Each event gets bigger and better."

Also impressed with the turn-out was Danika Cleary, Apple's product manager for the iPod. Sporting a blue iPod mini on her belt and hiding one of the new fourth-generation iPod players in her bag, she said the Japan launch outdid those in the U.S.

"This is bigger," she said. "When we launched it in the U.S. (the iPod mini) was still a new concept. We had lines at all stores but not like this. There has been so much pent-up demand because they've been able to see it but not buy it."

For Apple the event is about more than selling music players. A big focus of the launch event and the company's efforts going forward is to persuade customers, once inside the store, to look around its four floors and discover some of the other products the company offers. Cano underlined this in a pep-talk to staff, delivered about 10 minutes before the store opened its door.

"We want to make sure customers enjoy the store," he said. "When they come in we want them to go through the entire store."

The company has been trying to use the original iPod music player as a way to hook users into considering buying its computers and the iPod mini is expanding this effort to a new range of customers, said Cleary.

"The iPod mini has changed the demographic of people in our stores," she said. The product has been especially successful in attracting into Apple's stores young women who might normally shy away from computer shops. That's because a lot of people don't think of the iPod mini as an IT product but something more akin to a fashion accessory, especially because it's available in five colors.

In Tokyo on Saturday the most popular color, judging from the fast depleting stocks on the store's shelves, was green followed by blue. Pink appeared to be the third most popular with gold and silver bringing up the rear.

The iPod faces some competition in Tokyo from Sony's NW-HD1 hard-disk Walkman. The Walkman has been on sale here since July 10 and is expected to be launched in the U.S. in mid-August and later this year in Europe. Cleary, who has been in Japan for a week preparing for Saturday's launch, said she had taken time to check out the new Sony gadget but wasn't too worried about the possible threat it posed.

"It's not keeping us up at night," she said.

"They are on their first generation and we are on our fourth generation," said Cleary. "We've been doing a lot to push design and our interface is so easy to use. For example, the Walkman's control wheel is on the right hand side and that's no good for lefties (left-handed people), but ours is right in the middle."

Asked about the company's plans for a portable video player, she said Apple has no plans to announce such a product at present because it has been busy working on refining the iPod.

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