What Makes an Apple Store So Great

If you haven’t had an opportunity to visit an Apple Store (s aapl), I strongly recommend doing so. My last visit was a week ago when I picked up my new iPhone 4 and, though I’ve visited the stores plenty of times before, waiting in line reminded me of what makes Apple’s retail plans such a success.

True, I’ve written before about some of the missteps that Apple has taken, but even with its faults, the company never stops and keeps striving to make a difference in the minds of its customers. So what makes an Apple Store so great? It’s all about the experience.

Certainly, one can argue that the reason why people will wait in lines that are hours long for a new telephone is because the telephone must be pretty frackin’ cool. Some of you may have done this before, waiting outside of a Best Buy (s bby) or Walmart (s wmt) for a chance to get a Nintendo Wii or Playstation 3 when they first launched. But if you did, I bet your experience was nothing like it was at the Apple Store.

First, the stores have Wi-Fi. That one may seem a little cheesy, but when you’re camped outside at 3AM, it’s nice that a company that, despite all its talk of being energy-efficient and going green, still decided to leave its wireless routers active at night so you can watch Hulu while waiting in line.

Second, the stores take care of those who are waiting in line. During both the iPad and iPhone 4 launches, the two stores I visited had partnered with a local Starbucks and California Pizza Kitchen to provide food and drinks to those who had been waiting — at no expense to customers. How many places do you know of that do that?

Third, the experience with the employees is, despite the occasional misstep, phenomenal. Employees are not on commission so there’s no pressure for them to sell you everything and the kitchen sink. They’re in the business of building a relationship. They’ll shake your hand, call you by your name and really take personal pride in being able to help you with the right solution every time. Not only that, but it’s not just about selling you on the products. Apple is one of few companies who really wants you to return to the store and learn more about how to use their products, even if you’re not buying anything else. It’s all about the experience -– with the products, with the people and with the stores.

If you’ve ever had a chance to visit the Ritz Carlton, this type of service will be familiar to you as it originally started with its gold standards. The Ritz Carlton credo is the guiding philosophy of Apple’s own credo.

“The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission. We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed, yet refined ambience. The Ritz-Carlton experience enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.”

Even its motto, “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen” speaks volumes to how Apple treats its own customers. Have you ever walked into an Apple Store and not been treated like royalty? (As an aside, I strongly suggest you do not walk into a store and demand to be treated like royalty.)

Apple calls its service “surprise and delight.” It aims to surprise its customers by seeking opportunities to deliver on its customers wishes and needs and then delight them by going above and beyond, if you give them the opportunity.

Again, look at the recent iPhone 4 launch. After waiting in line, I was then taken into the store where I had a chance to play with the iPhone while I waited for the next Specialist who could help me with my purchase. When I’d finished purchasing my phone, it was switched over on AT&T’s (s att) network (rendering my old phone inoperable) and another Mac Specialist was there ready to help me plug it into a Mac and finish the activation process.

If you give them a chance, and don’t exploit it, every team member at Apple will not stop until they’ve given you the best experience they can. Unfortunately, however, as the busy consumers we are, we like this attention and tend to expect or even demand it sometimes. There are times when a Genius Bar appointment may not be available until the next day or that hot new iPhone just isn’t in stock. Getting frustrated at this point is understandable, but take a few moments to understand how the team at Apple really wants to help you and be sure to treat them with that same level of respect. Even though the stores are busy, politely asking, “How can we find a way to help me get my Mac working as soon as possible?” is just enough to, if they haven’t offered already, allow them to look at Genius Bar appointments at neighboring stores and go ahead and schedule the appointment for you. Or, if the store traffic permits, check in your Mac for repair and diagnosis at a later time so you don’t have to wait for the appointment.

The moral of my story is this. The Apple Store is a great experience and that’s a big reason why people love to buy Apple products. For many, it does start with their first iPod or iPhone and later they return for their first Mac. So don’t forget the little things that make the experience so great (the attention, the people) and appreciate them because Apple’s formula for success is something you just won’t find at Best Buy or AT&T or really any other retail store for that matter.

There you have it. Yet another reason why many of us Apple users are called “fan boys.” Have you had your own surprise and delight experience at Apple? Tell us about it in the comments.