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Apple's first British store will open this Saturday on London's Regent Street--and Silicon.com got to take a peek before the doors open to shoppers.

Apple's 99th store--with its largest single retail space to date--takes up two floors in the heart of London's West End, with 15 cash registers, a 64-seat theater and 138 employees who speak 24 languages. There will also be devices for consumers to play with in the store, and those will be available in great numbers, as well: 60 Macs and 77 iPods, including the most recent additions, the iPod Photo and the U2 iPod, will be available for use in the store.

As well as selling Apple's own wares, the store will offer all sorts of Mac and iPod accessories and third-party products--including some 500 software titles and over 150 iPod goodies.

Don't bet your house on getting your hands on the iPod of your choice, though. The newest iPods have yet to arrive, though they're promised to turn up before Saturday. The iPod Mini may be more of a problem. Ron Johnson, senior vice president of retail, said: "We can't predict if it will keep in stock, but we'll do our darnedest...We hope to have enough iPods in stock, but we can't guarantee (it)."

Overall, Apple's retail stores brought in $1.2 billion for the company last year, with 51 million people dropping in to the shops worldwide. The company has opened a new retail shop every 13 days since the first store opened in May 2001.

Hardened Mac fans and new converts alike will be able to learn about their favorite devices at the London shop. Free workshops will be run in the theater daily, and for anyone wanting to "go deep," as Johnson put it, there are special classes on a variety of subjects, from getting started on the Mac to advanced DVD and video editing.

The store will also feature Apple's very own "Genius Bar"--a collection of multilingual Mac experts whose job is to answer questions on Apple products. Shoppers can also get their Apple tech fixed for free--the average turnaround time for a broken Mac is two days.

London's Genius Bar will be the biggest in any Apple store to date, with 20 seats. Rob Stearn, one of those Apple Geniuses, used to be IT manager for a record label and, along with fellow British Geniuses, was flown out to Apple's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters for training and did a brief stint as a San Franciscan Genius.

Stearn said: "I've been a Mac user for many years. Mac users like to talk to other Mac users--they like to have a community."

So Apple's giving away free support; what's in it for Steve Jobs and company? Johnson's answer: The Genius crew all speak Windows. "It's reaching out to PC users--to switch to Mac," he said.

For anyone jumping ship, the Geniuses will sort out the transition, moving data and configuring settings in store. "We ask users, 'What do you do with Windows, and what would you like to do?' They're amazed at how much simpler it is with a Mac, (and) we show them the similarities (between the two operating systems)," Stearn said. The Genius Bar can also set up custom add-ons--including adding wireless cards or extra memory--before shoppers take the machine home.

The London store will also have a "Studio" area. It's a concept broadly similar to the Genius Bar but with creative thinkers rather than techies on hand to resolve queries.

Johnson described it as "face-to-face support for creativity," with 10 stools, staffed by people who "worked in the industry as moviemakers, photographers" and the like, who can offer advice on subjects including how to spruce up home movies with new music or better titles.

The official opening of the Regent Street store will be Saturday morning. The store's staff is gearing up for some considerably long lines--when Apple's first Japan shop opened, some Mac fans slept outside for two and a half days and, by the time the doors opened, the line was three-quarters of a mile long.

The first 2,500 visitors to the new store will be rewarded with commemorative T-shirts, and some will be offered the chance to buy a "Lucky Bag" for $463 (250 pounds) with contents from Apple and third-party vendors worth $1,296 (700 pounds) or more, Apple says.

What "or more" means is yet to be revealed, but Johnson said some of Lucky Bags will "contain surprise items that up the value significantly."

And London isn't the only place Apple's got its eye on for shop space. Johnson revealed that there will be two more stores opening next year in the United Kingdom.

Johnson also said there were more European stores planned but refused to give further details. "We clearly didn't come to Europe just for the U.K.," he said. "You'll have to stay tuned."

Jo Best of Silicon.com reported from London.

 

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