The Real Strength of Apple Retail: Change

On the 10th anniversary of Apple Retail(s aapl), it is amazing to consider the great success that the company has had with a program many thought was doomed to fail. Many point to the generous profits that Retail contributes to Apple’s bottom line. Some point to the astounding dollars per square foot that Apple generates in their stores. Those accomplishments are the results of tremendous success, a somewhat predictable result when you have amazing products to sell. But part of the secret to that success can be attributed to Apple’s openness to change.

One of the selling points of the original Apple Store was the red “hot line” that the Genius staff could use if they were stumped on a problem. After a time, that phone disappeared.  Turns out, Apple didn’t want customers tying up the bar trying to play stump the genius (a surprisingly amusing pastime). What they actually wanted was for the Genius bar to take care of problems on the spot, and delight the customer with excellent, attentive service.

Over and over, Apple has been willing to change things up, experiment, make adjustments, and even throw away things that don’t work. Here are some other examples of those changes, large and small:

  • The Genius Bar originally didn’t have appointments. You just walked in, wrote your name down on a piece of paper, and you were given a pager to tell you when it was your turn. Apple migrated to an electronic waiting list and then implemented appointment times. After the iPhone, the service queue was split up into separate Mac and iPhone/iPod lines.
  • The Genius Bar originally did all the product training in the store. Apple later rolled out ProCare with training sessions included, and then split training off from ProCare into One to One. Now One to One is only available for new Mac purchases, and group training has been emphasized.
  • Theaters were installed in all stores for product demonstrations and education. Theaters remain in the flagship stores, but the floor space has been given over to the Genius Bar and Creative training areas in smaller stores.
  • The Rhonda app on all of the display machines would turn the screen a certain color so that staff would be alerted to a customer waiting for help (Help Me Rhonda. Help, Help Me Rhonda!). This was later dropped.
  • Stores were directed to get average repair turnaround times under 2 days. In order to meet the challenge, stores started to keep parts for quick repairs on hand so that they could get some done on the spot.
  • The original store layout had several cash drawer stations around the store where customers would queue up to make purchases. EasyPay changed that so all credit card transactions could be handled on the floor. Cash drawers started to disappear and many stores only have one for the occasional check or cash payment. The EasyPay system migrated from a Windows CE (s msft)application running on Symbol hardware to an iPod touch outfitted with a card swipe reader and bar code scanner.
  • With the cash drawers gone, stores started posting greeters at the front to direct customers and introduce them to the way things worked. This position was formalized into a special Concierge position. Later the concierge would check you in for your Genius Bar or One to One appointment with an iPod touch or iPad app.
  • Apple installed receipt printers under tables throughout the store which meant sales staff could stay closer to the customer. Staff can now request product to be delivered from the back room, so the customer can continue to ask questions or receive help.

After 10 years and billions of dollars in profits, it is easy to look back and think that Apple Retail was an inevitable success. But Apple has had its finger on the pulse of consumer desire for all that time, and the ability to identify changes in that pulse and adapt quickly is a quality that should help Apple continue to succeed in the coming decade as well.