I was in the Apple Store at our local mall yesterday, albeit not because I thought they were the future of music or anything. I mean, they were showing footage of Tim Cook singing karaoke, but that didn’t change my mind. Also, my earnest sales person tried to tell me how Exciting the $160 Ear Buds were. This didn’t work either. Still, I walked out thinking that the Apple Store itself does represent the future of retail. Its new design shows that they understand the drivers of customer experience in a world where online retail is the dominant force.
At the Apple Store, technology is peripheral and people are central
The most major change I saw at the Apple Store was this conflagration of wooden boxes in the center of the room. Remember what the last design was – row after row, product after product. A big, long table with iPads. A big long table with iWatches. And so on. Now, the center of the room is clearly dominated with something else: people.
It used to be that the Genius Bar was all the way at the back. It even reminded one of a Catholic cathedral, with the tabernacle all the way at the end. You come up, genuflect, pray for an appointment to be rehabilitated, and then come back when the High Priests are ready.
That design is done. Now – in what I now think of as revolutionary – you meet in the middle of the room, seated on wooden boxes. There is a dialogue between the Geniuses and the customers. Moreover, those seats are all set at oblique angles. The implication is clear: no one person is in charge, no one person is more important than another. It’s a very egalitarian design, making the customer just another community member. We all learn from one another, and nobody is at the center or placed above.
Of course, there are plenty of gadgets on display. But now, they are at the edges of the room. The new Apple TV is there. iWatches are displayed in a variety of colors. The Philips Hue lighting systems are there, with plenty of peripherals. There are a few benches with the iPad Pro and Macs and such. But even though technology is what the Apple Store is selling, when you see it as a whole, the retail experience is about people coming together.
Why the Apple Store’s new design is future-proof
I’m going to borrow heavily from my man Doug Stephens, the Retail Prophet, the best retail futurist in the world. In his two books (the second coming soon) he delivers a stark message for retailers: create a compelling experience, or die.
Basically, nobody needs you as a physical retailer. The Internet will do an increasingly good job of connecting products with people. Hell, Amazon is testing drone delivery. Retail is in the midst of a revolution. Get with it or perish. And the only way to get with it is to create a differentiated experience.
Here, Apple is creating retail spaces that are a companion to their online retail operations. The deadly mistake for stores today is to create physical retail that is basically the bricks-and-mortar equivalent of a database: all the products in a row. You walk through. Might as well be an Excel spreadsheet, only with harsh fluorescent lighting. The Apple Store is the opposite of that.
The centrally-located dialogue space makes it very clear why you will go to the Apple Store. That’s where real live people will be. You can sit down and discuss technology. Maybe you’ll learn a trick or two. Also, you’ll be able to walk the edge of the shop and check out the new stuff.
Online: just products. In the Apple Store: talk to people.
Now, Apple Music still might be a bit inelegant, but this is the kind of clean simplicity of design we’ve come to expect from the world’s most valuable company.