When the MacOnline store on Arden Way closed in January, Casey Zacharias, who had worked for years as the store's chief service technician, saw a customer niche that needed to be filled.
While the Apple Store in Arden Fair mall and CompUSA do repairs of relatively new Mac models nearby, there are plenty of local Apple computer owners with older models needing software repairs, upgrades or hardware replacements in or out of warranty.
So on April 1, Zacharias opened his Mac repair store, called Core Care, in the same neighborhood. It's an 800-square-foot space at 2340 Harvard St., just behind the Hilton; he put up a sign near the old MacOnline store to steer searching customers his way.
A calling comes calling
"If I didn't do this, those customers would be somewhat abandoned," said Zacharias, who noted that while the retail side of MacOnline dwindled from the competition of the Apple store in the nearby mall, its bustling service demand never let up. "I kind of had to do this. Jason (Atkin, a fellow technician) needed a job. We both knew what to do. There was nowhere else to go."
Paul Lavender, an independent information technology consultant, has referred Mac repair work to Zacharias for years and believes in his expertise. "Casey ran the support side of MacOnline for a long time, I'm happy as a clam he's doing this."
Zacharias and Atkin are now tackling about 100 orders a month; to be profitable they need a volume of around 250 monthly. But last week the shop received the marketing shot in the arm it needed: authorization as a certified Apple Computer Inc. service provider.
That designation gets Core Care listed on Apple's Web site as a place to get warranty work done. With that certification, the store can do warranty parts replacement jobs and get reimbursed by Apple, while getting much broader exposure from locals looking to Apple for a nearby place to get their Macs fixed.
"It's like having a giant billboard on I-80," said Zacharias of Apple's certification. His first year won't likely be profitable, but he's counting on a growing client base to get the business into the black.
It typically takes a couple years to get an Apple service authorization. But Zacharias' has come almost immediately, because of his 10 years of doing Mac repairs. "They know exactly who I am and what I have done for them," he said.
With Apple's move in recent years to sell its own machines in its own retail stores, independents that had sold Apple products got squeezed, said consultant Lavender.
Dale Masters, a former manager of the MacOnline store, said it was a deep-pockets issue. In order for independent retailers to get Apple inventory for Christmas each year, they had to buy it all in early November, or risk getting none. But that required too much up-front capital for most small independents, he said, and that hurt their retail business.
Still, the repair and warranty side held strong at MacOnline.
Lavender said the MacOnline store had a two- to three-week backlog in repair orders with two technicians when the business closed. At that point, said Masters, "That left a huge void. But I'm glad Casey stepped up to the plate for the service side. He's taking it in a different direction (keeping clear of retail); I believe it's going to be a huge market for him."
So far, Zacharias' initial burst of repair orders has come from businesspeople needing quick fixes to their Apple laptops. "That's been a struggle, providing quick turnaround," he said, noting it's just he and Atkin working on the orders. Other work orders are for software upgrades for DVD capability, memory upgrades and hard-drive replacements.
"A lot of old Macs keep running and continue to be used," said Zacharias. "People typically stick with the older machines because of a comfort level. And they work; always have, always will."
Zacharias occasionally does on-site repairs, charging time and a half, including drive time. As business builds up, he's hoping to add two technicians, move to a larger location, and possibly have some Apple product sales. But because of all the competition in sales from Apple itself, Fry's and CompUSA, he'll concentrate on service.
Why Macs over PCs? Zacharias knew when he first discovered the inner workings of Apple computers that they'd be his specialty. PC repairs, he said, give him none of the intrinsic paybacks of working on an Apple computer.
"The Mac operating system is, in my opinion, more elegant, more intuitive," he said. "It's easier to understand what's happening when you try to navigate the system." The Windows operating system, which runs personal computers, "doesn't make sense," he said, and he'd found himself at a loss to explain why something on Windows works one minute, then not the next. He's also not a fan of the PC because it's a major target of viruses; Apple computers are relatively virus-free.
Beyond that, he said, Macs generally don't require a lot of maintenance other than upgrades or repairs needed, for instance, after a laptop is dropped on the floor. People sometimes bring in a Mac telling him something's wrong, when it's merely a misunderstanding of what the computer is doing.
"Nothing's wrong," he said of those cases. "Sometimes I feel like the Maytag repairman."