The new iPad hit shelves around the world Friday morning, and across the globe, customers are swarming Apple stores to buy one.

Photos of the crowds show that customers have gone to great lengths to be among the first to step into the store Friday morning. In London, they’re stuffed like sardines behind a barrier gate; in Tokyo, some have slept overnight in sleeping bags on the sidewalks.

The fervor may not be surprising since there’ve been similar scenes for the launch of other recent Apple products. But it’s still a little strange, when you consider that there are other — less extreme — ways to be one of the first to get your hands on the tablet.

Customers were able to pre-ordering the device online as early as March 7. The tablet will show up on those buyers’ doorsteps Friday without the hassle and hysteria of some of the lines at the Apple store. (It should be noted that Apple has a limited number of iPads available for sale online.)

Wal-Mart offered another alternative. The big-box retailer began selling the tablet at midnight, a full eight hours earlier than most bricks-and-mortar Apple stores.

So why do people keep making the pilgrimage to the Apple store on the first day a product goes up for sale, even when they know it’s likely to be a mob scene and that they can avoid the hassle by taking advantage of other options?

Some may simply crave the cultural experience of standing in line with other Apple fans as much as they relish the chance to actually use the product.

As one consumer told the Associated Press on Friday, “I don’t think it’s worth the price, but I guess I’m a victim of society.”

Perhaps for some, the anticipation of buying an Apple product on launch day is akin to hitting the mall on Black Friday or swarming Filene’s Basement for its storied yearly bridal gown sale: The experience of brushing shoulders (or in some cases, throwing elbows) with fellow shoppers somehow makes the purchase feel more special.

And for some of the most loyal fans of the brand who return to the same outpost for launch after launch, it may turn into a mini-reunion with people who share that geeky love for all things Apple.

Are you buying an iPad today? If so, are you braving the lines at the Apple store, or did you find a more stress-free way to get the new tablet? Tell us in the comments section.

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