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Rock Stars of Retail

Most days, they toil in anonymity. But on hot product launch days, store clerks become the shopper’s superstars — if only for a morning

BY JIMMY MAGAHERN

Published by: Phoenix Magazine, November 2007

Charles Keller arrives to work on his bicycle, wearing a black T-shirt, jeans and a wide grin that won’t disappear for the next 10 hours.

Most days, Keller’s workplace role is the same: He’s the older, less hip-looking clerk in the Phoenix Apple Store whom all the dads feel comfortable questioning about the latest iMac. He’s a friendly, down-to-earth guy in a sea of notoriously cooler-than-thou geeks.

But today, Keller coasts down the walkway at Biltmore Fashion Park between his store and Häagen-Dazs like a rock star, grinning and waving to the applause of an adoring crowd.

“All riiight!” he yells in his best Ted Nugent voice to the 150 people camped along the outer wall of the Apple Store, anxiously awaiting the release of the iPhone, the summer of ’07’s hottest tech toy. “Are ya ready?”

His wife comes by awhile later, towing the couple’s 4-year-old son, Chaz, decked out in iPhone placards to resemble a walking, talking version of the much-desired device. Again, applause. By the end of the day, Keller’s boisterous countdown to the store’s opening will be aired on so many local newscasts he’ll need a half-dozen TiVos to preserve his brief, shining moment in the sun.

“One of the people who works here went to the bother of putting all the news coverage on a DVD,” Keller says a month later, already nostalgic. “I was watching ’em last night. It was an amazing day.”

Such is the meteoric rise and fall of the retail superhero, that mild-mannered Clark Kent of the stockroom who suddenly emerges, on the launch day of a hot new toy, videogame or book, as the shoppers’ Superman.

“It’s crazy,” says Eileen, a store manager at the Paradise Valley Borders bookstore who oversaw the midnight July 21 launch of the final book in the Harry Potter series. Like many in retail, she’s meek about using her last name when speaking for a large company, but she confesses she’s never felt as popular as when she handed out wristbands to the Potter Heads waiting in line.

“At one time we had over a thousand people here. It was the most exciting day we’ve ever had,” she says.

Alas, the love is usually over as soon as the customers grab their gold and go home. Eileen reports the silence was deafening as she and her coworkers swept up at 2 a.m.

But Jacqueline Cerchero, manager of the new Play ’N Trade videogame store at Chandler Fashion Center, may have found a way to make the magic last. For the September 25 release of Halo 3, the most anticipated videogame of the year, Cerchero staged an all-night tournament to keep the shoppers around from midnight until at least breakfast.

“At Best Buy or Game Stop, you’ll just stand in line for who knows how long, get your copy and go home,” she says a week before the event. “At least here, we’ll keep that community feeling going all night.”

Not to mention the all-too-rare hero worship. “This is gonna be like Christmas for us,” Cerchero says, beaming. “It’s going to be a special day.”

”–

Photo illustration by Denise Wantz


from Contributor's Page:

iPhoners

Jimmy Magahern (left) with sons Charles and James in line for iPhones. Photo by Jack Kurtz.

Writer Jimmy Magahern is no stranger to sleeping on concrete. That's exactly what he did this summer when Apple unleashed the first batch of iPhones at Biltmore Fashion Park. His twin teenage sons wanted phones on the launch day, and Magahern thought camping out with them "would be fun." The experience sparked a story idea about the unassuming clerks who, for a moment, become Rock Stars of Retail.

"I've always been fascinated with what these people who work in retail go through," he says. "They lead an anonymous life for the most part, but on these days they get a chance to shine; and I really love to see that." A longtime Valley journalist, Magahern has a soft spot for underdogs as well as freelancing pop culture stories for local publications. — Stephanie Paterik