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10 Questions for Tesla’s New (& Apple’s Former) Retail Chief

Electric car maker Tesla Motors (s TSLA) has long likened its retail approach to Apple’s (s AAPL) stores — after all, what company wouldn’t rather be grouped with posh, fanboi-attracting beacons of Mac love than the struggling dealerships on auto rows around the country? Well on Thursday Tesla, fresh off its IPO and years away from profitability, said it has gone and hired Apple’s former real estate chief George Blankenship to head up development of its retail strategy and network.

Blankenship, who spent much of his career at Gap, joined Apple in 2000 — the year before Apple opened its first store. As TheAppleBlog has explained, Blankenship was responsible for “shaping the way Apple chose to place its inaugural retail locations, along high traffic routes in places with extremely high property values.” Microsoft (s MSFT) has also turned to Blankenship for part of its retail strategy.

The retail road ahead may be a bumpy one for Tesla. In its S-1 Tesla states that laws in many states may block the company from selling its vehicles directly to consumers at stores (rather than through franchised dealerships) and over the Internet in certain markets.

But Blankenship thinks Tesla will be as much of a game-changer as Apple has been and told us in an interview today, “I think Apple changed the world in numerous ways. I think Tesla’s going to do the same.” Here’s lightly edited excerpts from our Q&A with Blankenship about his strategy for making that happen.

Q. How are you getting started on your first Tesla projects, the stores in Tokyo, Toronto and Washington, D.C.?

I’m actually going to be in Japan next week, working on the design of the store, finalizing that. I’m working on some locations in Toronto and Washington, D.C. as we speak.

Q. What will you be looking for in future locations for Tesla stores? What’s ideal, what are some potential deal breakers?

The ability to create a very interesting customer experience and tell the Tesla story in an environment that may not be like a traditional car dealership that’s out on auto row somewhere. I’m looking for opportunities to do that in a more intimate way than a traditional car dealer.

For the future, I think you’re going to see a lot of locations like Boulder, where people are already there doing activities that they enjoy doing: shopping, having dinner. I want to be in locations like that and invite them to come and learn the Tesla story.

Q. One similarity I see between what Apple and Tesla both want to accomplish with these stores is the idea of converting customers — in Apple’s case, converting them from PC to Mac, and in Tesla’s case from gas to electric. What other similarities do you see?

Anytime someone has a game changing technology or invention, people need to learn about it, get comfortable with it. The iPod was different. Most music players at that time were basically 10 songs. Well, out came the iPod — a thousand songs in your pocket. When you have Apple stores that have natural traffic through them on a day in, day out basis, and you show them this thing called an iPod and a thousand songs in your pocket, people got interested. If there wasn’t someone there who could show what it could do, and that it wasn’t just another music player that was two to four times more expensive, it might not have become a game changer.

Q. What lessons do you expect to apply at Tesla from your experiences working on Apple and Microsoft stores?

When I started at Apple, we wanted to become the best place to buy a computer. After a couple years, we learned from our customers that there was another element: Apple was the best place to own a computer. If you treat a customer as a one-time sale, will you really take care of them? If you entice them with new things and treat them in a very special way, they become evangelists. I want to approach this as the best place to own a car.

Q. How will your approach be different this time around?

At Apple the mission was to get in front of as many capable, inclined customers as possible, and treat them royally. I don’t know that I’ll do much different than that here.

Q. So far Tesla’s stores have been showing the Roadster. Will you be working on a unique strategy for the Model S and any future models?

What I am focused on is a strategic plan around the world that will roll out just slightly ahead of need so that we can give customers a little taste of what’s coming and intrigue them so that by the time it gets there it’s the only thing they’re going to want. I’m already having meetings about 2015 and 2016.

Q. When Apple opened its first store back in 2001, part of the goal was to eventually put an Apple store within driving distance of 85 percent of consumers in the U.S. What’s your goal for Tesla stores — is there something similar?

I haven’t identified at this point what the metric is that will give us the visibility that we want to have to be able to tell the incredible story that we want to tell.

Q. What are some of the factors you’re considering?

I’m looking at everything from population to what magazines they read to where they like to shop to what is available to them currently in terms of technology and how much they’re embracing it. A lot of companies will just do demographics and say, “there’s this number of people with this income in a ring around this location — that makes them customers.” I think it’s much bigger than that. It’s not only about the black and white data that somebody can pull out of a computer. It’s how you put it together and look at it that makes a difference.

Q. What’s your timeline for crafting this strategy?

I’m working on it now, going to Japan next week, and I’ll probably be in Europe sometime in August or September. I’ll be putting this together each place I go, so as far as a final strategy probably not until fall, but on a regional basis it will be developing in pieces.

Q. What unique challenges are you anticipating for different regional markets?

When you get to some countries, they are accustomed to paying a lot more than we are for gasoline than we are. The thought process is a little bit different when you start talking about, here’s a car that doesn’t even use gasoline. There’s an invitation to tell them more right away because they want a piece of it now.

Image credits: Tesla store courtesy of Flickr user mil8; Apple store courtesy of Flickr user S_Baker; George Blankenship photo courtesy of Tesla Motors.

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8 Responses to “10 Questions for Tesla’s New (& Apple’s Former) Retail Chief”

  1. Brian H

    Your “light editing” missed this:
    “paying a lot more than we are for gasoline than we are.”

    Of course, if he actually said that and you want to highlight a certain marketeerish verbosity …