In praise of the Apple Store

Earlier today Scott McNulty complained about the Apple Store. I love my Apple Store, even if I have to love it from a distance (the closest store is nearly an hour away).

The service I’ve gotten in there is consistently excellent, as it is at even the highest volume stores. Staff are always friendly and attentive when they’re not managing mobs of people. Even McNulty admits that Geniuses can make a very bad situation much better.

The company’s profit per square foot is the best in the retail business. Apple’s retail store profitability is ahead of premium luxury brands like Tiffany and Coach, or even wildly popular yoga outfitter Lululemon.

And that’s in part because of the mobs of people that Scott and I inflict ourselves upon. Many Apple retail stores are overpacked with people buying products, asking questions or having products serviced. Which makes being a grumpy misanthrope even more of a drag.

Apple’s addressed one problem McNulty talks about – getting the attention of a staff member long enough to buy a product – and made an app for that. If you’re already using an iPhone, just whip it out and buy stuff right off the store shelves without ever having to interact with a human at all. His wife’s solution – raising her hand – works too. So does shopping online.

I’d love a deserted Apple store, but Apple can’t really lower the density of customers in their store and maintain the same high profit per square foot. That requires a careful buildout, and Apple hasn’t leapt without looking like Gateway did many years ago. That story ended badly.

Apple Stores are busy but the service is still excellent and Apple’s made it easier to pay than ever. I don’t see the problem, outside of their (and society’s) absurd requirement that I wear some kind of leg covering.

  • KvH

    Kansas City’s plaza store is really busy a lot and i can understand his complaints. But i’ve learned there are some hours that are almost empty (dinner time is usually a pretty good time). The self-checkout works pretty well. ALWAYS make a Genius reservation when bringing something in, and check if delayed before leaving.

    When I was at a conference in philadelphia and needed a ipad to vga cable, like right now, even though the store was packed the sales person on the floor was great. Told me they weren’t on the walls but in the back had a runner grab it and bring it out. helped me when the self-checkout didn’t seem to work right. In and out in 20 minutes, wasn’t late for my presentation.

  • Tom

    When I read his story i could relate to it really well. It was as if he described “my” Apple Store (Munich, Germany): Always packed to the brim and it often takes days in advance to get an appointment at the Genius Bar.

  • samdchuck

    “Apple can’t really lower the density of customers in their store and maintain the same high profit per square foot.” I don’t think that’s what he wants. I don’t think he or any other shopper much cares how much profit Apple makes per square foot, what he wants is a better experience. One where he doesn’t have to compete with a horde of people for information, to try out a device or to pay an actual person.

    One the one hand you say you don’t see a problem yet on the other you say the stores are ‘overpacked’, that you inflict yourself on ‘mobs of people’. You say they’re “always friendly and attentive when they’re not managing mobs of people” Meaning that there are moments, frequent enough for you to mention it and him to complain about, that they can’t help you because of “mobs of people”, mobs of freaking people.

    You suggest using an app or buy things online to buy things. These are not solutions to an overcrowded store, these are just workarounds. What he wants is a better experience, one that Apple stores are great at when they don’t look like a beehive. What he wants is less people at once.

    That being said, I’ve been to an overcrowded Apple Store when I was in the U.S. it’s no fun. Luckily the local Apple Premium Reseller is usually pretty calm.

  • Adam

    Once, I went in for a Genius Bar appointment to have the back plate of my iPhone 4 replaced (the camera lens had gotten all scratched up). I checked in with the concierge, and was promptly forgotten about. I stood over in the corner, awkwardly trying to stay out of the way of other shoppers for over 20 minutes before someone came up and said “are you being helped?” It quickly became clear that there had been a shift change (or something) and the new Genius Bar concierge had no idea I was waiting, even though the previous one had checked me in. Not a great experience. In the end, the genius did swap out the back plate of my iPhone for free rather than charging me the standard fee. But the only reason he did that was because he couldn’t find the proper job code on his iPod touch. Oh, and after I got home, I received a customer satisfaction survey email from Apple asking me to rate my experience — except the email was addressed to a completely different customer and included details of a completely different repair.

    • “I stood over in the corner, awkwardly trying to stay out of the way of other shoppers for over 20 minutes…Not a great experience.”

      I’m sorry but you have to stand up for yourself. If you are waiting any period of time that you feel is being wasted, TALK TO SOMEONE. Simply approach the first employee you see and explain the problem.

      Take responsibility for your own shopping experience. Don’t passively accept it. Make it what you want it to be. You’ll be MUCH happier.

  • I think for people comfortable and familiar with the Apple Store experience may perceive things much differently than a timid first-time Apple user who has no idea what’s going on, but wants to buy something. Having a clearly marked designated check out line as an option would make a first time visit much better. This goes back to a proven UX concept; you don’t mess with standard conventions.

    • you don’t mess with standard conventions.

      Because Apple doing what everyone else was doing would work out just fine? You do understand that by “standard conventions”, Apple shouldn’t have made it out of the 90s?

      • Another rule, rules are meant to be broken.

  • “Apple can’t really lower the density of customers in their store and maintain the same high profit per square foot.” — And why is that a problem? Their profit density is more than double that of the #2 store chain. They could double the number of stores and remain the most profitable even if no additional customers are attracted. To put it another way, they could clone every store, never open them, and still be more profitable per sq. ft. than Tiffany & Co. Their stores are clearly overcrowded, which detracts from the customer experience, and that is a problem.

    • “They could double the number of stores…”

      Really? How? Given Apple’s own internal constraints, how would they accomplish that? Desirable retail space isn’t created magically. It’s not brought forth out of thin air.

      Apple has a reason why their stores are in the places they are in. If it makes sense for them and they can accomplish it, they are expanding their stores. But if you are a retailer next door to Apple, you will be loathe to give up the foot traffic you see from being next to the most profitable retailer in the world. Apple can’t just force itself into the stores on either side in order to create more retail space.

      And, as Peter correctly pointed out in his story, they do not want to make the same mistake Gateway did. Look at how Apple’ stock was treated after announcing a record quarter. Imagine how the company would be raked over the coals if it expanded too big/too fast and had to close stores?

      • First, good job stripping out context. Second, could doesn’t mean should. Could they double the number of stores? Yes, they could, quite easily using their giant pile of money. Should they do it? Never made that claim. My point, as was made clear in the next line, was that Apple’s status as the most profitable retail chain is in absolutely no danger, so it is ridiculous to worry about it. My further point is, while growing too quickly is detrimental, that doesn’t mean that growing too slowly isn’t also detrimental.

        • “Yes, they could, quite easily using their giant pile of money…”

          LOL Another member of the “money solves everything” club. Sadly, it doesn’t.

          “that doesn’t mean that growing too slowly isn’t also detrimental.”

          Very few people would or could make the claim that “Apple Retail growing too slowly is detrimental”. Congratulations.

          • “LOL money solves everything” — No, it doesn’t, but neither does taking words out of context.

            “Very few people would or could make the claim that “Apple Retail growing too slowly is detrimental”.” — Even fewer would argue that John Browett’s term as head of retail was successful, and yet here you are worrying about profit density just as he did with his philosophy of “‘run leaner’ […] even if the customer experience is compromised.” Run leaner, grow slower, let the customer experience slide, that’s the John Browett path to success (and a pink slip).

          • LOL I didn’t take your words out of context – you’ll notice those were MY words you quoted, not yours.

            “Even fewer would argue that John Browett’s term as head of retail was successful”

            Agreed and no one did. Not sure why you’ve brought him into the conversation. Everyone knows he was a disaster but the “state” of the Apple stores as they presently are have nothing to do with him and predate his time with the company.

            “here you are worrying about profit density…”

            Ummm…reread what I wrote. A) you have no idea what I “worry” about (you didn’t even bother to ask) and B) I said nothing about “profit density”.

            You’ve decided to take this in a direction that’s got nothing to do with the story in question so, I’m done. Have a good day.

    • lucascott

      The trouble with building more stores is the likelihood it would just be more places to be overcrowded.

      What they need to do is to build and rebuild smarter. Many of their stores are overcrowded because they are trying to do too many things in the same space. They need to divide the stores up into clear zones with ample space for everything. No more of this cramming workshops in the sales area in folding chairs, fixing phones wherever a corner can be found.

      A two room approach would probably be best. Even two floors. One is sales with the demo machines, tables for their setups, a small cash wrap that is clearly visible for those paying cash for something quick like an iPhone case or picking up a web order. And enforce freaking loitering rules, especially keeping packs of kids off the machines making noise blasting you tube or such

      Room/floor two is training and service. Bar for macs, bar for mobile devices, tables for workshops, etc. use noise dampening tech to quiet sounds. Cut down the noise and some of the feeling of crowding goes away.

  • I’m only one of those who’ve posted elsewhere about the apparent variability of Apple store management. McNulty sounded as though he was pronouncing the entire chain’s defects from his own experience, which I somehow doubt encompasses more than a relative handful of locations.

    Once again, a tech writer projects his personal experience onto an entire population.

  • HCE

    The only problem with the self- checkout app is that there are only a rather small number of items you can use it for- like the aforementioned cables, cases and the like. For most things, you have to ask one of the staff who have up go to the back and bring one out for you. In places like Best Buy, there are lots of items that you can pull off the shelves, put into your cart and wheel to the checkout. Frankly, unless I need something right away (which is quite rare), I stay away from Apple Stores (and any other store) and just buy the item online.

    • HCE
  • smita

    I want to get one with a bigger hard drive but will apple repairs it and then send me a new one which I could return to the apple store and get a one with a bigger hard drive?