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Summary:

When British retail veteran John Browett took over Apple’s store operation, plenty of critics lined up to question the decision. And now, with the company forced to apologize for cutting customer service staff, his appointment by Tim Cook looks even more baffling.

Tim Cook, Apple CEO
photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Apple’s rapid-fire decision to backtrack on cutting staff in its retail stores may look like a rare misfire for the company. But for anybody reading the runes, it’s something more than that: it’s evidence of a significant strategic mistake perpetrated by CEO Tim Cook.

The man responsible for the decision to experiment with a new “staffing formula” that cut employee hours and fired new hires is British retail veteran John Browett. He was hired earlier this year, after an exhaustive search, to take over the reins from Ron Johnson. And Browett’s approach to “bloated” staffing caused such consternation that Apple was forced to make a rare apology and admit that the changes were a mistake.

”Making these changes was a mistake and the changes are being reversed. … Our employees are our most important asset and the ones who provide the world-class service our customers deserve.”

Remember when Cook unveiled Browett as his first senior hire after taking the CEO job? Back in January, I wrote about the appointment and noted Browett’s experience at pile-em-high, sell-em-cheap retailers — a philosophy very much at odds with Apple’s.

As well as running electronics retail conglomerate DSG, which runs 1,200 large but not exactly liked stores in Britain, I pointed out his other connections and experience:

Browett cut his teeth with Tesco, the world’s third-largest retailer and a dominant force in British supermarket retailing. He was the man responsible for building Tesco’s online presence, creating a leading web-based grocery outlet and delivery service, and he also expanded the company’s ranges way beyond food. He’s also been on the board of EasyJet, the low-cost airline that became famous for its cheap and cheerful approach to flying, for the past five years.

Sure, Ron Johnson had made his name at Target, but it was hard to see how Browett’s cost-cutting approach meshed with Apple’s approach. And at the time, defending the appointment, Cook himself stepped up and said that “our retail stores are all about customer service” and that Browett “shares that commitment like no one else we’ve met.”

At the time, to anybody who had customer-level experience of the empires that Browett commanded, that rang false. Today, it looks like a bit of a joke.

The pressure’s surely going to be on him now. But he’s only doing what many of us expected — and it will be interesting to see how Cook responds.

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  1. And now Apple is forcing staff to cut back on hours, a more sneaky and cynical cut-back strategy, by the world’s most profitable corporation, which they know is less conspicuous and less likely to generate sensational headlines:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/apple-cutting-back-employees-2012-8

    “Apple Store Personnel Cuts Linked to Profit Goal”

    This perfectly sums up this story, and Apple as a corporation.

    Apple’s extraordinarily effective PR machine has now taken over the handling of this issue, and while in damage-limitation mode the corporation will do and say whatever it takes to make the bad smell go away. It’s like spraying fragrance chemicals all over rotting meat until you can’t smell it — failing to address the underlying problem.

    1. So you’re saying that even though it was widely reported when Apple cut staff in its stores, nobody will notice if Apple doesn’t restore the staffing to its previous levels? Go ahead, explain how that would work – and talking about “spraying fragrance chemicals” is not an explanation.

  2. John V. Keogh Friday, August 17, 2012

    This is nuts. It takes twenty minutes to buttonhole a member of staff in any of the London shops. They need more people, not less.

    1. My thoughts exactly. Rarely see staff standing around.

  3. Russell Barton Friday, August 17, 2012

    Apple has always been about the best customer service that you can have. I have had many apple computers over the last 20 years. Only 1 was a lemon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PowerBook_5300) & I wrote a note after owning it for a year. Steve Jobs wrote a personal apology signed by him & promised it would never happen again. He also sent me a new & improved powerbook 5300cs with an additional year of warrantee. I still have it & still works, just too slow for my current needs. How many other computer companies have ever done something like that.

  4. Honestly, I’ve been incredibly disappointed with Apple customer service in their stores the last several months. Very poor retail experience. I can never find anyone to even check me out, and Genius appointments are terribly hard to get. Very sad.

  5. I’m with csharp1 about recent Apple retail stores over the last 4 months. Both experiences have been with the Genius bars. The first was a siuation with trying to buy a memory upgrade for my MBP. AppleCare told me the store would sell it to me AND help me do the upgrade….NOT. I almost got physically thrown out of the store … I finally got the memories and left…UGLY. The second was tryin to use the Genius bar to do a ML upgrade. The physical download/install was clean. BUT, ML screwed up my contacts and mail. That took almost SIX HOURS of genius time to get stabile.. Here, four weeks later, it’s still not right…

    Browett may have looked good on paper, but in reality, the folks working for him turned into a nightmare.

  6. I know he said not to, but with so many missteps as of late, it’s perhaps a good time for them to start asking “what would Steve do?”

  7. ANyone from UK knew that the appointment of Browett was not good, he is what we used to call a spiv what americans would call a hustler, in business that’s someone who destroys a perfectly good system in thhe interests of cutting costs while at the same time making themselves look good.
    Apple’s margins and sales per square foot of retail space are the envy of every business in the world and this clown comes along and tries to mess with it, bad call by Cook let’s hope it is the last.
    On another note who goes to the genius bar to download software and have it installed and then complains that it doesn’t work, surely any half bright 12 year old can do this. Does anyone do anything for themselves nowadays.

  8. > who goes to the genius bar to download software and have it installed and then complains that it doesn’t work<

    Who? I did for the free fast WiFi (which I didn't have at the time) to DL Mountain Lion (4.5 gigs) and another 3 gigs of pent-up updates (Aperture, iPhoto, iMovie, iTunes, etc.). The "Genius" also (upon enquiry) showed me how to make a standalone OSX installer from the 16GB flash drive I 'happened' to have with me so I can (legally) install it on my family members' MBPros. No waiting, no worries. Must be suck-ier service in the UK if the whinging here is any guide.

  9. Those of you who have an opinion on this, please send an email to tcook@apple.com and voice your concerns.

  10. You can take advantage of free wifi at any fast food store, coffee shop, or crappy motel in the country. That’s not a compelling argument for the Genius Bar

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