As Microsoft proudly ventures into the retail world that has already seen quick entrances and exits by other vendors like Gateway and Dell, many Apple fans are looking towards the new Microsoft stores with mixed feelings. Some of the more dedicated fanboys are quick to call […]

Fifth Avenue

As Microsoft proudly ventures into the retail world that has already seen quick entrances and exits by other vendors like Gateway and Dell, many Apple fans are looking towards the new Microsoft stores with mixed feelings.

Some of the more dedicated fanboys are quick to call Microsoft a copycat (and perhaps rightly so), but one thing that is certain is that retail is a tricky environment where you can quickly sink or swim. With Microsoft’s first retail stores right around the corner, I wanted to look at some instances in Apple’s retail history where it, for better or for worse, missed the mark.


EasyPay With the stores seeing more traffic every year, Apple devised an innovative way to maintain more personal experiences with Specialists while also keeping traffic moving as quick as possible. The EasyPay solution, based on Windows CE, is a mobile device that functions as a Point of Sale (POS) for Specialists to use in completing a customer’s transaction.

While more advanced functionality has been added to these devices over time, including support for education discounts, split tender, and the like, the devices are still plagued by their lack of speed and reliability. Turning a negative into a positive, these devices were the first to allow customers to receive their receipts via email, which for those who have tried it, is super convenient. The question remains though, why has Apple not embraced the iPhone or iPod touch as a device to replace the bulky EasyPays?

Colored Shirts

One of the unique things many realize when visiting an Apple Store is how the employees stand out. For the first six years, Apple employees wore similar colored shirts that sometimes were differentiated by phrases or titles pertaining to an employee’s speciality. Though in more recent times, as Apple has shifted towards segmenting their store into different “zones,” Apple has moved towards having employees wear colored shirts that are unique to their position.

Specialists are found in light blue shirts while Creatives and Geniuses are prominently wearing dark blue. The rhyme and reason behind this could be one of two paths, making it easier for managers to quickly see where employees are located and/or to allow customers to easily determine which employee might be best to assist them based on their situation.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the colors are utterly confusing for many visitors. When stores are crowded, customers rarely seek out the “right color” employee, but rather are just happy to find any employee who might be capable of helping them. Teaching customers to recognize the difference between the colors and the corresponding roles in the store does take time and can be very hard to do, especially when many visitors to the store are still first time customers.

The iPod & Studio Bars

A few years ago, the “big picture” of Apple’s retail plans were to envision the store as divided into two areas, the “Red Zone” and the “Family Room.” The Family Room, located at the rear of many of the stores, is an area where returning customers come back for services like the Genius Bar or personal training. Along with the launch of the “Family Room” came the idea of giving stores a dedicated “Studio” bar and a dedicated “iPod” bar.

Similar to the comments expressed above about “training” customers to realize the right type of employee they need to find in the store, it was very difficult to show customers which bar they needed to visit for their needs. On top of this, the stores still face many customers who just “show up” at the bars (the Genius Bar especially) and are still unaware of the need to or process of making an appointment. Personally, I loved the idea of the dedicated bars as they provided a great resource and focus, but as time passed and space constraints became another problem for Apple to deal with, both of these bars got the boot.

The Red Phone

Red Phone When the retail stores first opened, the Genius Bar featured a simple white back counter with one lone red telephone in the middle. This red phone, inspired by the original red phone during the Cold War, was to allow stumped Geniuses a quick connection to the Apple mothership where a definitive answer to any problem could be found. In reality, many stores never used the red phone (after all, the idea was the Geniuses are supposed to be geniuses, right?) and it was simply relegated to a more iconic status as it sat on the counter. Eventually the phones were removed.

The Theater

Another staple item found in the original retail stores was the theater, a large area in the back with a large rear projection screen and bench seating for customers. The theater was used often for product presentations and special events, including live streams of the MacWorld Keynote addresses for several years. Eventually the theater’s usage dropped and the area became a place to sit and wait for a Genius Bar appointment while enjoying looping product demo movies.

During remodels in 2006, many stores removed their theaters (though a few still have theirs, besides the flagship stores). The removal resulted in a dramatic increase in the brightness of the stores and allowed for more Genius Bar expansion. This was probably a good move, as Apple could still offer close interaction with large groups of customers via its Studio Bars, but the removal of those has made large product demonstrations more difficult.

Some may see these examples as instances where Apple has put business interests ahead of the customer experience that it prides itself on. Others may see these examples as instances where Apple has learned from mistakes and came out with a better experience in the end. With Microsoft opening its first stores soon, it will be interesting to see the trials and tribulations it experiences and how its retail strategy, like Apple’s, will evolve to sustain growth and profitability.

Stay tuned to the next part of this list tomorrow.

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  1. With iPhone/iPod touch now working with accessories attached to the dock connector, Apple must be working on a replacement for the EasyPay with a card swipe attached to the device and a custom app to process payments.

    If they do this, they should definitely look to market this to stores big and small.

    1. I know they are working on an iPhone/iPod app for it, from discussions I’ve had, I’m not sure if they will add a dock support swipe system or not. But it would be intelligent, right now they key it in and all the other employees find it rather annoying because EasyPays keys are so small.

    2. I think the problem will be a few things:

      1. PCI compliance
      From a PCI compliance perspective, the hardware, both the iPhone / iPodTouch and credit card swipe needs certification.

      2. Enterprise Device Management (tried and tested solutions like Afaria, SOTI, WaveLink, etc don’t exist for the iPhone platform).

      I don’t think Apple’s approach to device management is sufficient — although it’s a start. Keep in mind the Motorola PDT 8800 (which is the device Apple uses currently in it’s stores) is a success for Apple because:
      a. It is ruggedized
      b. These devices do not grow legs and find it’s way out of the store
      c. Proper device management to lock down the device and comply with PCI

      Not saying it’s not doable, but they have a long way to go.

  2. the idea of bunch of nerds calling themselves “geniuses” boggles my mind. I will never refer to anyone as a genius unless they have at least a doctorate and the degree paper on the wall to prove it. what were you thinking apple? I’m sure it was meant as a tongue-in-cheek thing, but still wrong imo.

    i would accept something like “expert” or “knowitall”, but genius? i don’t think so. a lot of real geniuses don’t refer to themselves as such by virtue of being humble…

    In my opinion this thing should die and should be filed as the 6th apple flop.

    1. Apple Geniuses, are actually Apple Certified. They have a rigorous training program, and exams to take each year to keep their certification.

    2. Don’t know about you, but just because I have extensive training in a task does not make me a genius. It makes me an expert.

      In most people’s everyday usage, the term has special exclusive meaning that is earned (e.g., Mozart, Einstein, Noble-laureates and winners).

      I guess I am forced to retract my previous statement that simply having a piece of paper saying you are a genius does not necessarily makes you one. My point was that the term is being besmirched by apple and it will soon lose it’s true meaning.

      Simple experiment: yell the word genius and see how many people think about the apple store vs a renowned scientist/artist.

    3. I guess it is American overselling, a bit like those shows on TV that say they can make you an Idol or a Top Model.

  3. The worst Mac store I’ve ever seen is the one in Clarendon (near DC). It used to be my go-to store, but then they merged the checkout desk and the Genius Bar (are all stores doing this?). Anyways, it took me three trips to figure out – there’s no sign-indication that the Genius Bar is for checkouts, so for a while I thought you had to find an employee in the right colored shirt. I understand the aesthetic choice, because the store is a lot more spacey now, but now long lines are an “always”.

    Now I go to the one in Tysons – which still has the theater (and the checkout desk!). I didn’t know that the theater was an “old” thing – I thought the one in Tysons just had it because it was larger than the Clarendon store. Interesting article.

    1. The one in Calgary, Alberta, Canada the checkout is at the genius bar to… I too find it cumbersome as sometimes, it takes forever to get someone who will check you out.

    2. Tysons was the first Apple Store to open.
      May 19th 2001

  4. Coming from someone who worked in an Apple store, I would hardly call the Easy Pay a flop. Out of the hundreds (possibly thousands) of transactions that involved the Easy Pay, maybe two actually had a real problem (a reboot during the credit card processing stage).
    I had many customers who were shocked by the convenience. The funny part is the employees get so accustomed to using it that when people want to use cash or a check we panic. Haha.

  5. Easy Pay a flop? EASY PAY? I Love EasyPay! I never have to wait in line, don’t have to get handed off from one employee to the next, and I get an emailed receipt. It’s freakin brilliant, and everyone I know who shops @ an aple store – geek or not – loves it.

    A morning radio show I listen to spent several minutes one morning talking about how great it was and why doesn’t every store do it etc. It’s far from a flop…

    Frankly this whole aritcle is a little odd – a phone that didn’t get used much is a ‘flop’? And colored shirts? Very very odd article here.

    1. I agree. EasyPay is one of my favorite features of the Apple Store, as I’m pretty much in and out every time (minus the time I spend oogling things before I actually make my purchase). I’ve always found the colored shirts easy enough to decipher, and even when I didn’t, I asked the first person I found and they quickly directed me (brought me even) to the correct person.

      I can’t say anything for the Red Phone or the iPod/Studio Bars, as my regular Apple Store never had them in my time going there. My local store also doesn’t have a theater, but I was recently in a store that did, and I sat in on a rather entertaining and informative presentation on using GarageBand, where they were teaching how to edit a podcast.

      If these are Apple’s flops, I’d say it’s just one more reason why they’re retail experience is better than most. Now, if we want to talk about crappy retail experiences, we could always talk about Best Buy…

  6. If that’s the only things ‘wrong’ with Apple’s retail stores, I’m going to wager they are in pretty good shape! ;)

  7. I’ve never understood why anyone thinks that the “Apple Store Experience” is anything but truly awful.

    Take my local store for example (the “mini” store in Santa Rosa California). The only signs in the entire store are the price placards by products. Where’s the cash register? Where do I go for help? What’s the deal with the Genius Bar? I need an appointment? Where and how is it made? Etc. Etc. Etc. Don’t get me started on that stupid carry around credit card widget. My store has exactly one. And only the manager gets to use it. Result: a store with six active employees – four floor helpers that can accomplish exactly nothing for you, a genius with whom you have to make an appointment to even make eye contact with, and a manager who does everything and who always seems to be “on break.”

    The last time I used the store (and believe me, it was the LAST TIME) all I wanted to do was something very simple. I bought a retail copy of Photoshop CS3 upgrade. It seemed simple enough, pick up box off shelf, take to cashier, pay, leave. Oh, wait, there’s no cashier. Well there was a line at the counter at the back. Oh, wait, that just formed naturally. The other 15 “customers” thought that was the check-out counter too. Too bad it was the Genius Bar. No help there. Long story short, after 43 minutes (yes, I timed it), going through every employee in the store until they found the only person who could ring up sales (the manager), I finally (and do mean FINALLY) left the store with my purchase. It would have been longer if 7 of the 15 people in front of me hadn’t given up and walked out in disgust (like I would have done if I wasn’t in desperate need).

    I wish this was some kind of anomaly, but, sadly, it’s like this every time I go in there. And, for the sake of my sanity, will be never again. The Best Buy “experience” may be lacking, but at least there’s no mystery as to how one actually buys something.

  8. Apple Wow | THE CAPRANICA Wednesday, August 12, 2009

    [...]  Check out THIS article that says what I liked about the store is really not all that good. [...]

  9. 5 Apple Store missteps that have since been corrected.

  10. Sandeep’s comment wins for most informed on the security issues around taking credit cards on a wireless POS Device.

    And the rest of the comments, I think, reflect a reality: by allowing retail associates to easily swipe cards and process transactions, Apple earns substantial customer good will every time.

    Is it surprising that the device is running Windows CE? Well, sure, at first glance. But the integration with their systems is notable, as is the fact that Apple used the technology available, despite it being a Windows device. That’s about customers, not culture or credo.

    Honestly, I’m not sure I entirely agree on any of your points.

    Whatever your opinion may be, objectively it’s hard to call any of them a true “flop” – like, say, the Cube or the Lisa.

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