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There were only about seven people camped outside Apple’s (AAPL) Fifth Avenue store on Sept. 17, waiting for the Sept. 21 release of the iPhone 5. In a one-hour period no fewer than a dozen journalists visited those seven people. This was the observer effect in full—the act of watching a thing didn’t just change the thing being watched, it was the thing itself.
“I’m just here because I wanted to experience urban camping,” said third-place line-waiter Jessica Mellow, who blogs about her line-waiting experiences past and present at iphonewhatever.com and is a marketing and promotions freelancer. She is also into body painting. “It’s such a fun way to meet new people and have a new experience.”
An Apple line-wait is a curious thing, as it has no real reason to exist. When Nike (NKE) reproduces classic Air Jordans, people do camp out, but that’s because Nike makes only so many and then no more. If you don’t buy a pair now, there will be none left, and the secondhand market will punish you with a 200 percent markup.
There’s nothing ephemeral about an iPhone: Supplies, eventually at least, are effectively unlimited. And if the goal is to get one in your hands quickly, you have the entirely reliable and eminently convenient option of ordering online and having it delivered to you. If being the first on your block is a motivating factor, then you really should go to Australia, which employs a cunning use of time zones and the International Date Line to be the first iPhone 5 market on the planet.
None of that appealed to Hazem Sayed and Sage Catharsis, the first and second people in line on Fifth Avenue. They began scoping out the spot on Sept. 12 before being allowed to set up the following day. And there they’ll remain for eight days.
One thing Sayed and Catharsis had in common with the others on line was that this was not their first time. “I’ve been waiting on lines at Apple stores since the iPad 2 line,” said Sayed. “There was a woman in the iPad 2 line that was in first place. I paid her $900 for her spot.”
The line is self-regulating, and for the time being it’s a low-key affair. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave your post for a bathroom break or even for several hours, line participants said. By Thursday night, however, barricades will be put up and, except for brief breaks, people will be required to stay in line to keep their place. It turns out no one in line was there just for their love of Apple products and the thrill of being one of the first to get one: This was a terrific publicity opportunity—either for themselves or for companies compensating them for being there and representing their brand.
Sayed and Catharsis were promoting their new location-based social-networking app, Vibe. Positions three through seven were occupied by Mellow and four others, all sponsored by Gazelle, a used-electronics purchaser and recycler. All five wore Gazelle T-shirts. The last two spots were manned by Roger Chinchilla and his brother. They wore T-shirts advertising Refundo, a low-cost banking site.
For Sayed, waiting on line accomplishes several goals. “I can get the word out about our product, I can test the product here on the line, and I get a new iPhone,” said Sayed, Vibe’s founder. “It’s a trifecta.” This is the sad truth that the Apple line reveals: Even naked consumerism is now corrupted by corporate interests.