When it comes to brick-and-mortar stores, Apple’s retail division has always been at the forefront of innovation. with Steve Jobs himself directly involved in building the company’s first retail stores in 2001, differentiating them from the boring computer showrooms of the era. After Apple’s original pioneer of retail, Ron Johnson, left the company in 2011 to helm J.C. Penney, Apple’s retail arm went somewhat stagnant under the leadership of John Browett, leading Apple to woo Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts to bring fresh new ideas to the table, reinvigorating Apple retail stores with a more “boutique” design and experiential approach to working with customers.
In a recent interview with Vogue, Ahrendts speaks candidly on what she’s been doing with Apple’s retail arm, providing some insights both into Apple’s overall strategy for its extremely popular stores as well as some behind-the-scenes information on how it all fits together.
Prior to joining Apple, Ahrendts had won accolades for turning around fashion retailer Burberry, establishing a solid bricks-and-mortar store that could appeal to the millennial generation. It was undoubtedly this success that attracted Apple executives to peg Ahrendts as their next leader of retail, and at a time that Apple’s traditionally cutting-edge retail experience was starting to get a bit stale, allowed Ahrendts to see Apple’s retail division as a project worth tackling.
While Apple boasts a plethora of stunningly-designed flagship retail stores, from Tokyo to Dubai, Ahrendts notes that it’s not the physical design of the stores that’s the most important factor, but rather designing the experience in each store to allow the company to build long-term customer relationships, as well as keeping the network of more than 70,000 Apple retail employees feeling like they’re part of the larger vision.
Apple has also dramatically increased the number of high-profile flagship stores that it has been opening under Ahrendts leadership, with the company now focusing on spending substantially more money to promote its brand and provide a “full experience.”
As we renovate every store we update all of the technology. We don’t want to be gimmicky, but stores need to become living, breathing spaces, not just two-dimensional boxes.Angela Ahrendts, in an interview with Vogue
During the interview, which took place at Apple’s soon-to-be-opened Carnegie Library store in Washington, D.C., Ahrendts also reveals more information on the thousands of location-aware beacons that the company has been installing in each store, which are designed to interact with Apple’s iPhone Apple Store app to provide a more engaging customer experience, welcoming customers when they arrive and prompting them with relevant information based on where they are and what they might be browsing.
Ahrendts also speaks on how she feels that her role is to continue Steve Jobs’ original vision, reflecting on Jobs’ original quote from when he opened Apple’s first retail store: “Your job is not to sell, your job is to enrich their lives and always through the lens of education.” She explains how Apple’s ambitious experiential retail programs like Today at Apple are carrying that on through classes, talks, concerts, and workshops that are designed first and foremost to “enrich lives” through thousands of events held every week in 21 counties around the world.
Another factor that Ahrendts considers critical in the success of Apple’s retail vision is keeping the 70,000 Apple Store employees connected to each other. As one would expect from Apple, this is done primarily via apps. Ahrendts explains how Apple retail staff start each day by visiting an app called “Hello” which includes the most important things that they need to know for the day, along with videos from Ahrendts and other members of the management team. Another app, Loop, allows staff to interact with each other on an internal social network that spans the entire Apple organization, allowing them to record short video clips that are automatically translated so that they can be viewed by users in any store around the world. While Ahrendts carried this internal communications approach over from her successes at Burberry, Apple’s technology has enabled it to work at a completely different scale, helping to keep employees engaged, and — more importantly — retained. Ahrendts notes that many retailers have an employee retention of around 20 percent, while Apple boasts a rate of nearly 90 percent.
Another tidbit Ahrendts added is that although the iPhone accounted for 62 percent of Apple’s sales revenue last year, the iPhone is actually not the largest category among the company’s retail stores, which boast the number one position for Mac sales. The iPhone, of course, is also sold through cellular carriers, and with many offering it as part of contract deals, it makes sense that fewer iPhone sales would be coming through Apple’s own retail stores.
At the end of the day, Ahrendts notes that overseeing Apple’s sprawling retail arm is more about ensuring that the division has a positive impact on the Apple brand than worrying about sales numbers and similar metrics. Instead, she notes that she prefers to focus on what can be achieved in each specific market where a store is located, and how Apple can do things differently to reach people in different communities, rather than trying to take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to retail. The ultimate goal, Ahrendts says, is “uniting people to do incredible things.”