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Putting a polish on Apple

Tech Superpowers finds niche selling add-ons, service

At Boston Mobile Concepts in Dedham, technician Kenyon Lee worked on a Lexus outfitted with an iPad. At Boston Mobile Concepts in Dedham, technician Kenyon Lee worked on a Lexus outfitted with an iPad. (Robert E. Klein for The Boston Globe)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / June 30, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH — With its white walls and bare concrete floor, the new Tech Superpowers Inc. store at Patriot Place looks vaguely like one of Apple Inc.’s hugely successful retail outlets. And sure enough, you can buy an iPad tablet or Macintosh computer here.

But you can also buy $6,000 widescreen TVs, advanced home theater systems, or sophisticated office furniture, all designed to interact with Apple’s electronic gear. Tech Superpowers is even showing off a Lexus luxury car, with back seat Macs and an iPad embedded in the dashboard, to demonstrate mobile multimedia systems.

Tech Superpowers has created its own version of an Apple store with an upmarket strategy that differentiates it from the popular Apple company-owned outlets.

“Apple’s the Ford dealership,’’ said Tech Superpowers founder Michael Oh. “We’re like Roush,’’ an independent company that sells high-performance add-ons for Ford Mustangs.

Oh is one of about 360 independent Apple retailers in the United States that are built on shrewd marketing, strong customer service, and healthy relations with Apple.

Robin Lewis, a retail industry analyst and coauthor of the book “The New Rules of Retail,’’ said that living in Apple’s shadow is a big advantage for independents like Oh. “Apple stores and how they educate people has got to have a rub-off effect that will also enhance the brand wherever it is sold,’’ he said. “It’s raised all Apple ships.’’

But he added that the independents can only continue to thrive by delivering better service and a broader selection of products than Apple provides.

That’s exactly what Oh has in mind for Patriot Place. “That’s where the money is,’’ he said. “Nobody’s going to get rich selling iPads, except Apple.’’

Founded in 1992, Tech Superpowers survived Apple’s near-collapse 15 years ago to prosper during the computer maker’s resurgence. Then, in 2008, Apple opened a massive store in downtown Boston, a block away from the Tech Superpowers flagship location on Newbury Street. It seemed unlikely that Oh’s small store could survive the competitive challenge.

But Tech Superpowers serves businesses that rely on Apple computers and software, a core market different from the consumer-oriented Apple stores. “Our focus is to drive our business efforts and services,’’ said Oh.

For instance, Tech Superpowers offers a “managed machines’’ program that provides technical support for a client’s computers, starting at $49 per machine per month. Oh also offers special support options for companies that use Macs for graphic design, video, or audio production.

Ceres, a nonprofit environmental foundation in Boston, often buys Mac computers at the Apple store on Boylston, where it can get a lower price. But director of operations Hilary Forbes said Ceres depends on Tech Superpowers for service and support that the Apple store doesn’t provide. At Tech Superpowers, “we have at least two people assigned to provide tech support to us,’’ said Forbes. “They also help back up all of our computer systems. Should anything fatal happen, we’re in good shape.’’

Still, Oh said, “We have a very hard time reaching out to those business customers.’’ That’s why he is spending about $500,000 to create the new Patriot Place store. A smaller Patriot Place site he set up last fall attracted visitors when the New England Patriots played next door at Gillette Stadium. Oh thinks the new store will bring in the businesspeople who form his target audience. At the same time, items like the customized Lexus and the high-end home theater gear will attract consumers, he said.

Other New England Apple retailers differentiate their stores by promoting their customer service. “We train our people to recognize our customers, greet them with a smile,’’ said Don Mayer, chief executive of Small Dog Electronics Inc. in Waitsfield, Vt. His employees will sometimes do house calls to service customers’ machines.

Steve Ide, owner of Cape Mac Computers, with stores in Hyannis and Mashpee Commons, said he knows about 40 percent of his regular customers by sight. “If there’s an advantage to small size,“ Ide said, “it’s that we can be really personal.’’

Independent retailers can get a lot of help from Apple, which offers financial support to those who are looking to expand — as long as they stay away from areas where Apple plans to build. Small Dog operates three stores, in Waitsfield, South Burlington, and Manchester, N.H. “We work very closely with Apple to identify sites where they’re not going to put in a store in the near future,’’ said Mayer. “It’s mostly friendly.’’

“I think they treat us as sort of provincials,’’ said Ide, although a healthy relationship with Apple is vital to his survival. “You’re in a phone booth with a saber tooth tiger, so you better make friends with him.’’

Apple officials declined several requests for comment.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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