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Apple Retail Store Success: It Ain’t Rocket Science

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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 Dimly-lit stores with out-of-date computers, software, and hardware litter my thoughts.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.

Visitors at the Apple Store at the Scottsdale Quarter
Visitors at the Apple Store at the Scottsdale Quarter
  • 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.
Easily accessible display units at the Apple store
Easily accessible display units at the Apple store
  • 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.

24 Responses to “Apple Retail Store Success: It Ain’t Rocket Science”

  1. Apple continues to be the best consumer technology company, period. They’ve got the products, the passion, the buzz and the customer experience down cold. Their customers respond in kind with great loyalty.

  2. Couldn’t agree more with the crucial element of customer service touched on above: this encompasses not only positive and knowledgeable salespeople – but *empowered* salespeople, fully equipped with Point-of-Sale equipment to do the deal for you on the spot vs. forcing you to wait in line, and the ability to pull up your paperless receipt for you via their backend system. Just a few examples of how Apple invested in an infrastructure to make the experience seamless.

    And divine: let’s also not underestimate the subliminal psychographic elements of stores (light, windows) that are surely not accidental.

    Want to go to AppleStore. Want to go to AppleStore.

  3. Never had a bad experience at the Emeryville store or the San Francisco flagship store.

    When I bought a Macbook this spring in Emeryville, I was in and out of the store in five minutes, nice.

    It helps that those black tee shirt uniforms were retired, and now they they’re wearing pleasant blues and oranges.

    Best Buy is fine for a lot of my needs, but there’s a lot of noise because people are testing televisions and stereos, Apple stores are kinder on the ears.

  4. Bacchus

    All that is said in this article is true. I have been in many Apple stores across the country and the chain executes beautifully. The consumer gets a fabulous experience. Further, all the retailers mentioned (Circuity City, CompUSA, etc) were awful retailers and those experiences were poor – at best.

    I am an x-retail executive. I still work with retailers everyday. And while I am not defending the “poor exection” at retail as a whole, it is imporant to note that there are a few fundementals that make Apple successful in this scenario. First, there is a small thing called “profit”. In the history of retail, there has never been a category that is less profitable then computers. Further, there has never been a category in “hard goods” that suffers from rapid obsolescence the way that computers do – this further erodes profits as products must constantly be discontinued and replaced. The reason these are important factors is because profit is what allows retailers to have better services. When a manufacturer is also the brand and that brand has invested in their brand, then the brand can command the correct price for the products that allows them to make a profit. The brand actually has value and this retail experience furthers that value and capitalizes on that value – simultaneously.

    Bigger, is this… we are a consumer based society (or, at least, we were until last fall). Everything is about “more”. As products, concepts, and brands are invented and developed, the goal of our society is to make them “mass products”. When we do that, we strip features, quality, services, and a whole lot more.

    So while Apple should be commended for the great retail experience, it is not that much different than the Armani store, the Lexus dealership, or the Ritz Carlton. High brand value equals high profit margins. That, should, in turn, lead to a great consumer experience. So, it is more accurate to say that Apple should be commended for working on their brand.

  5. I’ve been to the three stores in the Dallas area, and I can’t walk six paces into the store without a staff person greeting me — or at least acknowledging me. If they’re all busy, at least one of them will give me a nod or something to let me know that they see me and they will be glad to help me as soon as they have their current customer properly taken care of. Just that little gesture is huge by comparison to other types of stores.

    Now, the Genius Bars are always overloaded… there’s some room for improvement there. They are organized and professional, but there’s just so much volume I wonder if they shouldn’t increase staffing of the GB a bit more.

  6. It’s just my opinion, but I think Apple chooses not to get involved with too much in the way of software sales because it eventually invites more headache into the sales routine. If you sell XYZ software, people WILL ask about it, and then you instantly become an expert in that software – something Apple wisely wants to avoid.

    They sell some major apps (Adobe/MS Office) because the people that buy it typically know what they’re doing – and they sell some minor stuff such as font collections, clip-art/drawing apps, and disk utilities which require little knowledge to work and even less “tech support” before the sale.

  7. Apple Stores are very nice for the 1st time buyer, or for major hardware purchases, but they offer a very poor choice of 3rd party software, usually hard to find, and usually a bit grubby. They really don’t cater for the Pro or specialist user at all. I’m also not convinced that some of the 3rd party hardware is the best. For example hard disks – well, GTechs are very good, and these are offered, but WD … come on, these are awful on Macs with their insane auto unmount and whatever.

    There is also a huge bias towards the iPod in the accessories area.

    All in all it does come across as a bit superficial….but then again, it seems to work.

    • Strange. The Apple Store is one of the ONLY retail locations near me with a wide array of Mac software to choose from. As for your hardware example, I bought two different G-Tech drives, one from Newegg, and one from the Apple store, both Mac formatted. Neither worked for more than a day. I returned them and bought a WD and couldn’t be happier.

      Of course, preference and personal requirements take precedence in these things, and Apple’s choice won’t be the one everyone would make. Still, for the vast majority of Mac users, I would imagine the Apple Store can be their one-stop shop for all things Apple.

  8. Dave Hoffman

    Speaking of the Apple section of Best Buy, it is not nearly as aesthetically pleasing. I sometimes find myself taking a trip to the Apple Store just to check out the new hardware etc with no intent on buying anything because being in that store is enjoyable. At the same time, whenever I am at Best Buy, I NEVER even think about walking over to the Apple section. It just does not appeal to me. So that proves that while the products themselves are the reason why people buy them, the Apple Store definitely provides the pleasurable experience.

  9. vcmonk

    I find it amusing that in the Apple section of the local Best Buy, the Mac’s aren’t bolted down in any way, kind of like in the Apple stores. It would seem that Apple has enforced this same type of rule on them, which is nice.

  10. Dale Smith

    You forgot to mention the attitude of the employees. On iPhone launch last Friday I watched an Apple employee with a customer in tow, march down to the AT&T store in the Natick mall and help straighten out a problem that the customer had with them. Amazing!