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It’s been one month since Apple became the first major retailer to proactively close all of its worldwide stores outside of China in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and now it looks like the company may be starting along a gradual slope to reopening at least some of them.
When the outbreak first surfaced in China, Apple was quick to shutter all 42 of its Chinese Apple Stores, and while it managed to reopen almost all of them by early March, less than two weeks later it was forced to close its stores in Italy as the virus wreaked havoc in that country, and then only a day later that it announced the decision to close its doors almost worldwide — 458 stores in total — leaving only the ones in China still operating.
Originally, Apple said that the closure would only be effective until March 27, although it very quickly revised that announcement to say that they would be closed until further notice as it became apparent that most of the countries around the world weren’t going to be out of the woods anytime soon. During that time, Apple continued to pay all of its retail employees, even offering some the opportunity to work in customer support roles from home, but the stores themselves remained tightly locked down.
Now, however, according to Bloomberg, it looks like Apple is getting ready to bring some of its locations back online, starting with its single retail store in South Korea.
In a statement, Apple said that “South Korea has shown great progress during the spread of COVID-19,” and that it will be reopening its store in Seoul tomorrow, Saturday April 18, on an adjusted schedule “to ensure customers and employees continue to stay healthy.”
In the statement, Apple also emphasized that it will be focusing primarily on support at the Genius Bar, which is understandably a more important move considering that many customers have been with limited options for getting devices serviced since Apple closed all of its stores. In fact, some who had previously brought devices in for service were left without them as all repairs ceased while the stores were closed.
While customers will have the option of making in-store purchases at the Seoul location, Apple is still encouraging people to order online for delivery, or in the very least pre-order and simply pick up their items in the store in order to maintain social distancing and reduce the need for contact.
It’s unclear right now what this means for the rest of Apple’s stores, however Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s Senior VP of Retail Operations and People (aka “human resources”) told employees last month that Apple planned to start reopening its retail stores in the first half of April on a staggered basis, so tomorrow’s Seoul store seems to come reasonably close to meeting that target. However, O’Brien also followed that up with a second memo that indicated that Apple Stores in the U.S. at least would remain closed until at least early May, which makes sense as the U.S. still hasn’t reached the apex of its COVID-19 cases. By comparison, South Korea had 10,603 cases at its peak and has managed to bring the spread of the virus under control over the past couple of weeks.
Apple will almost certainly continue to evaluate local conditions for each country on a case-by-case basis, and likely even on a county-by-county basis within the U.S. market, relaunching stores on a rolling schedule over a period of weeks subject to local regulations and guidelines, but it still seems very unlikely that we’ll see any U.S. Apple Stores reopening before next month.