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Tuesday, September 05, 2006, 06:00 pm PT (09:00 pm ET)

Apple and Circuit City to make a second go at Mac sales

It didn't work five years ago, but a rejuvenated image and fast-approaching holiday shopping season have returned Apple Computer to Circuit City, where this month it will again try its hand at selling Macs.

Starting next week, a handful of Circuit City stores in the eastern U.S. will feature a selection of Macs including MacBooks, Mac minis, MacBook Pros and iMacs, AppleInsider has learned. The initiative is part of a new pilot program, which if successful, Circuit City hopes to expand to many of its retail stores, people close to the electronics retailer have said.

Last week, select Circuit City employees were sent to Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. where they were paired with Apple Solution Consultants (ASCs) for a week-long training expedition. The goal of the program was train Circuit City reps to effectively market the Mac and its strong-points, rather than lure prospective buyers towards their own familiarities in the Windows PC isle.

"This is a pilot program that's just getting underway and we will evaluate how it is doing over the next several months," Circuit City spokesman Jim Babb told AppleInsider. He added that in addition to Macs, the retailer would also stock select Mac software titles and accessories.

Circuit City, the nation's second largest consumer electronics retailer, and Apple, the world's most recognized niche computer manufacturer, have run this course before. In July of 2000, the two companies announced they were teaming to offer Apple’s iMac, iBook and AirPort products throughout Circuit City's then 570 retail stores. But with Mac maker cutting the ribbon on 27 of its own retail stores the following year, the two companies mutually decided it would be best to go their separate ways.

Things could play out differently this time around, say insiders. With its brand now booming and the first signs of Mac market share gains peering through the clouds, Apple is reportedly considering a move that would pull ASCs from CompUSA boutiques — a deteriorating model — and reassign them to trendy Circuit City posts. Insiders say the Mac maker's relationship with CompUSA has been waning with each new Apple retail store it launches.

The move into Circuit City is just on facet of a much broader strategy from Apple, aimed at increasing the number of worldwide distribution points for its Mac product line. While the company's iPod digital music players can easily be located in over 40,000 shops, there are only about 7,000 locations where customers can purchase a Mac; and even fewer where customers can first take one for a test drive.

Earlier this year, Apple began testing a similar pilot at select west coast Best Buy locations. Like Circuit City, Best Buy has indicated that it is prepared to scale the pilot program "rapidly" if results prove strong. During a conference call in July, Apple said was "evaluating results" of the program but had nothing new to announce at that time.

An expanded deal with Best Buy, which operates more than 900 outlets nationwide, could add more than $400 million to Apple's top line each year, analysts have said. Circuit City, though smaller, could prove to be an equally fruitful venture with 600+ locations.