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In May of 2001, Apple (s aapl) opened its first retail outlet store in Tysons Corner, Va. It was immediately met by critics and the typical roster of Apple-haters with predictions of doom and massive financial losses. Eight years later, Apple has more than 255 retail stores worldwide, and are the darling of the retail computer industry. So what makes them so successful?
While the Mac, iPod, and iPhone are what makes Apple successful, the formula for the retail stores’ success isn’t so obvious until you actually visit an Apple store. Sure, great products sell themselves, but Apple has made sure that its products have the best opportunity to do so by creating an environment that offers virtually no reason for a buyer to go elsewhere.
The Typical Computer-Buying Experience
When I think of how I used to purchase computers in the past at stores like CompUSA, Circuit City, Computer City (all three now out of business), I do so with little in the way of fond memories. Dimly-lit stores with out-of-date computers, software, and hardware litter my thoughts. CompUSA in particular was famous for the horrible way in which it showcased their hardware offerings. Most computers were dirty, had broken keyboards (if a keyboard was attached to the computer at all), no monitor attached, and usually had no software installed — which mattered little, because if you actually found a computer that worked, it was typically password protected and there was rarely a sales rep to be found.
Even today, most stores like Staples (s spls), Best Buy (s bby), OfficeMax (s omx), and Fry’s Electronics make the computer buying experience as difficult as possible. Desktop computers typically sit idle on shelves high out of reach and completely lifeless. Laptops are barred, bolted, strapped and nailed down to a low display shelf, with as many of them as the store can squeeze in. One person looking at a laptop in the middle of the isle effectively prevents anyone from looking at that laptop, and the one on each side of it. Price tags on the shelf rarely coincide with the computer sitting right above it, and offer little in the way of computer specs.
You can’t pick them up or comfortably test the keyboard in a natural position, and just like the previously mentioned stores, they either have no power running to them, or are password protected to prevent you from actually using them. The few working models you do find have little-to-no software installed, and none have Internet access.
The Apple Experience
It’s really not difficult to understand why Apple chose to open its own stores. Steve Jobs wanted a better environment for buyers to experience the Macintosh. And Apple pulled it off masterfully. It’s all about the experience.
- Spacious interior – The isles are wide, allowing patrons to move freely about the store. In fact, Apple almost encourages loitering with the amount of empty space and abundance of stools and tables.
- Plenty of hardware – Apple puts as many units of each model of computer it offers on display as they can comfortably fit. Other than launch days and special events, you’ll likely have no trouble getting at the hardware you want to check out. The Scottsdale Quarter store I recently visited had no less than 20 iPod touch and iPhone’s each on display, at least 20 laptops, and nearly a dozen or more iMacs and MacPros.
- In working order – Every single device Apple sells in their stores is working. And they don’t limit the access to the devices with passwords that require you to find an available sales associate.
- Internet Access – All computers, iPod touches, and iPhones are connected to the store’s Wi-Fi network. You can get on the web and check out your favorite sites on any device. This is such an obvious sales tool that most other stores simply ignore.
- Accessible – You buy a laptop, iPod, or iPhone to take on the road. Comfort, weight and the overall feel of the device is important. Apple knows this, and makes it easy to handle the display models. Unlike most other stores, they’re not bolted down. Prices are clearly marked.
- Realistic Expectations – Every Mac in the store has the latest OS installed, as well as iLife and iWork. You can get a real feel for how the apps you typically use will perform on any particular machine. In many cases, Apple even installs Final Cut, and other third-party software such as Photoshop, Quark XPress, and Microsoft Office on some Macs. This is especially useful for high-end users looking to check out the latest Mac Pro.
Beyond the Macs
Along with their own hardware and software, Apple carefully chooses which third-party hardware and software to sell in its stores. You won’t find every obscure make and model of input devices, cameras, printers, speakers and software. Apple goes out of its way to select the best models that work 100 percent out of the box with the Mac. And like its own products, Apple puts them on display so you can easily try them out to see how they work. By limiting the amount of software and hardware it sells from other vendors, it ensures a pleasant and positive experience for the buyer.
Then of course there’s the check-out process and the Genius Bar. Most computer stores have four or more check-out registers, but only have one person working them. At the Apple store, you simply look for an available associate who can run your credit card through a handheld device and have your receipt emailed to you. Simple! And if you have any questions about your purchase, or have issues with an Apple product you already own, the Genius Bar offers free advice and warranty work — take that, GeekSquad!
Though the Apple retail stores probably aren’t as close to your home or office as the nearest Staples, it’s certainly worth the drive if you have one near you. The entire experience is much more satisfying than any other retail experience I’ve come across. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that Apple simply makes it a place you want to shop at, rather than one you have to.