When Apple first introduced its retail stores almost 20 years ago, they were a paragon of consumer friendliness. Apple had pioneered retail spaces where customers could feel welcome and at home, regardless of whether they were actively buying a product or just coming in to “kick the tires.” Open spaces, friendly and well-trained staff, and a “no-sales-pressure” approach all helped Apple’s retail stores become places that people liked to be, rather than merely another place to go through the shopping drudgery that plagued most other electronics retailers of the era.
However, this seems to have been changing in recent years. Firstly, of course, other stores have gotten the message and begun to adopt the same strategy as Apple; Microsoft’s stores are almost a carbon-copy, and even Best Buy stores are at least slightly warmer places than they once were. On the other hand, it’s become gradually apparent that Apple’s own retail stores have fallen back from the warmth and friendliness that they once exuded. Some of this is naturally due to their popularity — as Apple’s star has risen, so have the number of bodies packing into its stores to check out its latest products — but other recent changes have actually made it more of a hassle to actually buy something at an Apple Store than it used to be.
A new report by Bloomberg shines some light on some of these recent criticisms, talking to current and former Apple employees who have pointed to a number of factors behind the changes, including a stronger emphasis on “branding” along with a drop in the quality of staff as Apple has rapidly opened new stores.
Internal layout changes have also contributed to more of a feeling of chaos within Apple’s retail spaces, with traditional checkout stations having been replaced several years ago with roaming employees with portable terminals around the same time Apple introduced its EasyPay self-checkout, and more recently the Genius Bar being phased out in the same manner. There’s no longer a counter or obvious fixed location that a customer can walk up to; instead customers must check-in with a concierge who stands at the front of the store with an iPad, frequently surrounded by a cluster of people.
As a result, many consumers are finding it an “exercise in frustration” when they simply want to visit an Apple Store to make a purchase. Bloomberg cites the anecdotal example of Web Smith, who visited a store in Columbus, Ohio to buy a laptop for his daughter, and took 20 minutes just to find an employee who could actually help him.
It took me forever to get someone to sell me the product. It’s become harder to buy something, even when the place isn’t busy. Buying a product there used to be a revered thing, now you don’t want to bother with the inconvenience.Web Smith, Apple Store customer
Instead, Smith kept encountering members of Apple’s Genius team, which handle tech support and not sales, and were therefore unable to take his credit card. While there have naturally always been complaints about service in Apple stores, it was only a few years ago that there were many more users raving about Apple’s retail stores than there were complaining.
It’s been a gradual shift, but one of the biggest changes to Apple’s retail stores came after former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts joined the company. Ahrendts, who had led the iconic fashion brand to great success, brought a similar approach to Apple, working to “reinvent” the retail stores into more unique spaces, but it seems that in the process of creating gorgeous new flagship stores to serve as show pieces, Apple abandoned some of the simple utility that originally made the stores so great. In other words, Apple’s retail division gained a tremendous amount of flash, but lost some of its substance in the process.
Ahrendts, who departed Apple last month to be replaced by Apple’s HR chief Deirdre O’Brien in an expanded role, also had the goal of creating a more boutique environment — a strategy that may have served Burberry well, but was perhaps better suited to fashion stores than those that serve the needs of technology consumers. In order to create a “luxury showroom” feel for its stores, service counters were eliminated entirely, and many third-party accessory makers found their products cut from Apple’s shelves; those that survived the culling were told that they had to redesign their packaging to fit with Apple’s new boutique design if they wanted the company to continue stocking their products. Apple Store shelves became showcases of homogenous looking product packages.
Ahrendts’ strategy was perhaps understandable in an era when Apple was debuting its first fashion accessory in the form of the Apple Watch. Under her leadership Apple Stores began to feel more like fashion boutiques than electronics stores — venues where a $17,000 gold Apple Watch wouldn’t seem out of place, and employees would recommend products and actually offer fashion advice to customers regarding things like watch bands and styles.
As Ahrendts also pushed more into a “Town Square” design, customer-service counters were the next thing to go, in favour of “Genius Groves” where customers could sit under trees to comfortably wait to have their support requests addressed, and roaming salespeople with mobile terminals. The goal was to let visitors “spend time with the brand” rather than being distracted by something as bohemian as a retail business environment.
However, as some employees noted, the changes made by Ahrendts upset the finely tuned balance that Steve Jobs had pioneered with the original Apple Store. According to one former Apple retail executive, Jobs “was really keen on stepping into the store and knowing what to do” and expected the retail stores to excel equally at the tasks of selling products, helping customers with technical issues, and teaching users how to get the most out of their gadgets.
The elimination of counter spaces, combined with an often high ratio of customers to employees, mean that “mission” shoppers — those who wanted to get in, buy something, and get out — often found themselves wandering through a maze of people trying to figure out what to do next, while those showing up with a technical issue, even a minor one, were forced to go through a check-in process and then sit around in a seemingly random space waiting for an unknown Genius to find them. In Ahrendts’ efforts to eliminate visible lineups, stores are now instead crowded with people sitting around waiting for simple repairs or technical questions to be answered.
That said, while the changes made by Ahrendts may have made Apple Stores more confusing places for many consumers, she doesn’t get all of the blame — insiders say that the skill of Apple employees had started to deteriorate even before Ahrendts joined the company, partly as a result of rapid expansion, but also cutbacks in the amount of effort Apple put into training employees or even recruiting those with specific skill sets. Geniuses were once training at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, but are now mostly trained at stores, and Apple has less concern about looking for existing technical or specialized backgrounds.
Still, it seems that this may offer an insight into some of the reasons for Ahrendts’ departure. While Ahrendts announced in early February that she would be leaving the company in April, Apple reportedly began shifting away from her strategy almost immediately, eliminating special edition Apple Watches and adding stickers and poster boards in stores that would have never been part of her “less-is-more” approach. The focus has also already started to shift away from promoting higher-end “boutique” products like the iPhone XS and putting more of an emphasis on Apple’s wider product lineup.
Sources inside of Apple say that Apple’s new Senior VP of Retail, Deirdre O’Brien, who also still helms the company’s human resources (or “People”) division, will likely be looking more to the legacy of Apple retail, possibly seeking a return to themed sections of the Apple Store that could be used to promote Apple’s new services such as Apple Music and Apple TV+, and some employees are hoping that she’ll also reintroduce the original Genius Bar. O’Brien is expected to open a major new Apple Store at Carnegie Library this weekend — the first one to be opened on her watch. As one former executive says, “Deirdre has a deep understand of the stores” and now that she’s the face of them, it will be interesting to see what’s in store for the next era of Apple’s retail strategy.