Apple’s long-awaited release of its iPhone 4S in China turned into an abortive slugfest at dawn on Friday, as an army of scalpers erupted in fury at the company’s decision not to open its flagship store in Beijing.
Thousands of customers had queued overnight for the latest must-have Apple phone, but most of them were working for black-market traders who planned to re-sell the phones outside the store for a hefty markup.
Scuffles broke out between rival gangs of scalpers as opening time approached, and all semblance of order outside the Apple store broke down. Employees kept the shop in the up-market Sanlitun neighborhood closed, and posted a notice saying no iPhones would be sold there for the time being.
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Angry scalpers, angry workers
Furious scalpers began throwing eggs at the store and shoving police and security men, while furious students, migrant workers, and others who had been promised 100 RMB ($16) to wait in line all night surrounded scalping gang leaders who refused to pay them because they had not bought any goods.
Across town, at the only other Apple store in Beijing, employees dealt with the crush of customers by opening at 6 a.m. and closing two hours later, saying they had sold out of the iPhone 4S.
“The iPhone will not be available in our retail stores in Beijing and Shanghai for the time being,” Apple said in a statement.
The new model phone is, however, still available for purchase online from Apple or from China Unicom, the cellphone company with which Apple has partnered in China.
That doesn’t help the scalpers, who have besieged Apple stores in China at previous product launches. Carrying colored balloons to identify themselves, they had organized crowds of agents – each wearing a symbol such as a white glove on one hand, or a piece of string around the coat sleeve, depending on which group they were working for – to stand outside the Sanlitun store from early on Thursday evening.
One reporter counted seven different scalping gangs operating in the queue.
Even at normal times, black marketeers are a common sight outside Apple stores in China, selling either items their agents have bought in the stores, or items smuggled into the mainland from Hong Kong, or outright fakes.