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Apple's plan to open a series of Gateway-style retail outlets appears to be nearing realisation, if the claim by Gateway supremo Jeffrey Weitzen that the Mac maker has been attempting to poach his staff is anything to go by.

"Apple is serious [about opening its own stores] because they've been trying to hire our people," Weitzen told the Wall Street Journal.

A report in today's WSJ goes on to cite sources briefed by Apple staffers who claim the company plans to open stores in five of the ten busiest US retail centres. That ties in with rumours that Apple will announce the chain early next year.

Hints that Apple is considering a move into retail emerged back in June 1999. The parallel with Gateway was clear, given Apple's decision to go direct via the Web, and claims that made by Gateway that its own stores generate about the same margins as online sales.

The WSJ's sources note that no firm decision has been made on Apple's choice of retail locations - or even whether it wants to get into retail at all. But, as MacCentral points out, Apple has signed up a series of senior staffers who have retail experience, including Allen Moyer, formerly of Sony US, Ron Johnson, merchandising director at Target Corp. and in recent months George Blankenship, a real-estate executive from The Gap.

And don't forget, The Gap's CEO, 'Mickey' Drexler, sits on Apple's board.

Apple's retail plan has been said to centre on showroom-style outlets hooked up to the online AppleStore, which will act as their fulfillment operation, reducing the need for both staff and local warehousing facilities.

How all this will sit with Apple's retail partners like CompUSA and Sears isn't hard to imagine, but if Apple can do direct to end users without provoking a massed reseller rebellion, it should be able to figure this one out. Careful selection of sites is the one way of preventing direct competition with channel partners, as are jointly-owned or franchised outlets.

Finally, let's not forget Apple's profit warning, with its suggestions of rethought strategies. Apple needs to get sales up, and it may feel, with its mainstream consumer computing focus, that now is the right time to take its systems as close to those buyers as it can. ®

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