Article: The Apple Store At Ten (And Then Some)

by on May 23, 2011

Ten years ago the world was a much different place. Apple was a much different company. This site was barely anything (our actual content dates back only to about 2002). Mac OS X was still a very not-ready-for-primetime product. If you wanted to buy an Apple product, you had to hope that your local computer store had it, a catalog vendor had it, or you had to order it directly from Apple. Then, something interesting happened—Apple opened two retail stores.

Last week, the first Apple Retail Stores turned ten. I could sit here and talk about the historical significance of the Apple Store, the way it has made buying a Mac better, how more people visit and buy things at Apple Stores than go to baseball games, or any of the other statistics and facts that are out there, but I think instead I’ll just focus on what Apple has done right and comment on how even though a number of people didn’t think it would work, it did.

Apple Store AppThe format of the current Apple Stores looks much different than the original designs for Tysons Corner, VA and Glendale, CA. Apple’s original format featured quadrants about what you can do with the various Mac models and had a very classy, upscale look. It almost had a museum-meets-library-with-some-computers-thrown-in feel, and it worked. Located in affluent suburbs and and high-traffic malls, Apple Stores couldn’t help but lure people in, especially in the days when a wi-fi network was a technology to get excited about. The best part was that the people there knew the Mac.

Eventually, the iPod happened and more Apple Stores popped up, focusing more on the products and leaving the “what you can do with them” to be a byproduct. Apple was still very careful about where Apple Stores were built and the layout was tweaked a few times. Throw in the iPhone and iPad and it’s no wonder people can’t walk by without feeling the need to hang around and play.

Some people criticize the atmosphere and employees of the Apple Stores, saying that there’s a bit of arrogance and elitism, and while some people may perpetuate this stereotype, I’ve felt that more often than not, a lot of people working there are very pro-Apple, but also want there to be a good customer experience. But what I really like is the actual model of operations.

I really appreciate how simplified the experience is and how accountable everyone is for how the operation works. At the door is a person with an iPad, waiting to check you in if you are there for service. Just about anyone can be a cashier, thanks to iPod touches and the _ software. The Genius Bar has large displays to indicate the order of appointments, or at least advertise products. It really does feel like an organized, convenient experience. I think some of these things can be adapted for other retail situations, while others may never work, but it really does seem like a lot of care was put into the operation, even at “smaller” stores that may not feature as many training aspects, like the theaters, or special sections.

Apple Store AppWith many of the earliest stores coming off their original 10- or 12-year leases very soon, and I think Apple really needs to look for new locations for some of the very busy stores. These long leases obviously demonstrated that this plan was for the long haul, especially during a couple of economically poor periods for retail.

This past weekend, Apple made some major updates to the buying and browsing experience, including using specially-provisioned iPads as displays, and an updated iOS companion app. Unfortunately, the app is still not a universal app (Aka iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad), but the majority of users who will get the added functionality over visiting the site in a browser are those who will be visiting an Apple Store with their device. Clearly, someone bringing an iPad to go buy more things would look a little out of place, compared to an iPhone. Still, in this day and age, it would be nice to see the iPad get some love.

The display iPads are a more interesting move—Apple can now control displays without dealing with distributing paper flyers and having someone change them by hand. These really remind me of an interactive version of HDTV-based menus appearing at a lot of locations (McDonald’s has been using these for the McCafé section for awhile). Although prices and specs don’t change all that often on Apple’s products, the amount of time and resources that will be avoided could be an advantage, especially if these display iPads are used for a couple of years. I’m curious how custom-made they are (no battery, camera, microphone, or speaker, perhaps?), but I bet Apple’s cost is far less than your average consumer iPad. The big change is electricity vs. paper/printing/shipping costs. It’s about as “paperless” as you can get.

I think that ten years ago, many wouldn’t be expecting Apple Stores to be as unique, far-reaching, and successful as they are now, but clearly they have broken the mold for interactivity in shopping, for both electronics themselves and using your smartphone to do it. Here’s to another ten!

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