Can Tony Apple Stores survive a Down Economy?

How do I know Apple stores are high rent? I live in Southern California, and every Apple store within 50 miles of me is in a tony, upscale neighborhood. A new store, for instance, opened in September near my home in the swankiest shopping center in the area--bar none. No Best Buy, Radio Shack, or Circuit City could touch this real estate.

Ditto for the East Coast. The Apple store nearest the town where I grew up is in one of the snazziest shopping spots in suburban Philadelphia. (The clusters of $40K-$50K cars is a giveaway.)

So, the coolest, hippest, greenest (though the latter is debatable) computer company is arguably the most elitist.

Here's the challenge: As consumers think hard (or not at all) about computer purchases, Apple is going to be more pressed than ever to deliver inspired, compelling designs to keep people flocking to its stores (and flock they still do).

Remember all those Gateway Computer stores? It started with a few here and there and then everything went all at once. The same thing happened to CompUSA and Circuit City. So, for Apple, the canary in the coal mine are its stores.