As Microsoft (s msft) proudly ventures into the retail world that has already seen quick entrances and exits by other vendors like Gateway and Dell (s dell), many Apple (s aapl) 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.
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?
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
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.
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.