I was at my local Apple Store by 6:30 AM EST. Thank goodness it is only a 5-minute drive from where I live. Perhaps 20 to 25 people were in front of me in line. Apple employees were casing the line, checking to see who had pre-ordered and who hadn't. They were doing their best to get all the pre-orders lined up and accounted for. They had a list, and they were checking it twice. They wouldn't answer direct questions, such as "how many iPhones do you have", but they did say that they had already sold out of their stock of white models (based on the number of pre-orders).
Confusion among those in line around me reigned. Apparently the general public doesn't read tech blogs. At all. Some thought the store opened at 8 AM, others knew it opened at 7 AM. Others had crazy expectations at what the device could do, others new exactly what they were getting into. Some thought they qualified for new devices when they didn't. Some were getting their first iPhones, some their second, some their third. By 7 AM, there were about 50 people in line behind me. My guess, about 75 to 80 people had lined up by the time the store opened at 7AM. Last year's numbers were well over 200 at my local store when the store opened.
Apple employees handed out bottled water to everyone in line, and also offered free coffee to those who wanted it. A nice touch.
The Apple employees began to let people trickle in right at 7. They separated out people who had pre-ordered versus those who hadn't right at the door in two separate lines. Basically, the entire store was set up to help those who had pre-ordered -- 95% of the staff was working only on pre-orders. One staffer was helping those who hadn't pre-ordered.
When it was my turn, I stepped up to a computer and an Apple Store staffer walked me through the purchasing process. First I had to confirm my account details. Then I had to agree to AT&T's terms of service and sign for a new contract. Then I had to agree to Apple's terms of service for iPhones. Then I had to pay for the iPhone. After that, I was congratulated and pawned off on another employee.
This second employee actually opened my new iPhone, plugged it into a laptop and registered it with AT&T via iTunes. He offered to help transfer all my contacts and other data, but I declined. Others were choosing to have their info transferred on the spot. This is where things might get bogged down, depending on what percentage of people decide to have their info transferred. Activation took less than a minute.
In all, from the time I entered the store to the time I left was maybe 15 to 18 minutes. My total experience lasted from 6:30 AM until 7:50 AM, when I walked out of the Apple Store with a new iPhone.
When I left, the line still had about 50 people in it. Keep in mind, this is before 8 AM, before the mall in which the Apple Store is located actually opens, and I live sort of in the middle of nowhere.
For those who pre-ordered, the line was moving reasonably fast. Those who didn't, however, were going to be in for a long day. By my calculation, 2 people who didn't pre-order had been helped by the time I left, and about 20 who did pre-order had been helped. Those who didn't pre-order were warned that the white models were already all spoken for, but they could get a black model and exchange it for a white one if they wanted to within 30 days.
Verdict? Much faster than 2008, by a long shot. My guess is the big city stores will have longer waits, but if you're going to buy a new iPhone at a smaller store, your chances of having a good experience are solid -- as long as you pre-ordered before June 17.