Apple’s retail problem in India
Apple’s retail strategy has been hailed as one of the hallmarks of the brand’s success. It’s ‘self-owned and operated’ stores in the US and few other countries have played a crucial role in building the magic around the Apple brand. They are built to a certain specific layout & design and are staffed by knowledgeable, helpful staff. The folks at Genius Bar have come to be known as Mac experts who can solve any technical issues. Even the other staff are knowledgeable about Apple products and can guide, advice a potential buyer. To me (at least from the brief interactions I have had in such stores) the staff come across as fans of Apple products too…they seem to believe in the brand. They come across as evangelists themselves.
Contrast this with the franchisee-owned Apple stores in India. Aside from the difference in size (and therefore visual impact) there is a crucial difference: the staff. I understand that the size of the store is something beyond the control of the franchisees – they simply cannot afford to have stores as big as the Apple Stores abroad. The business for Apple retail may not warranty such a huge size. In fact, many of Reliance’s franchisee iStores had to be shut down and converted to multi-brand Digital Xpress outlets, as Apple-only format was unviable. But the biggest challenge Apple is likely to face in India is: knowledgeable, trained and more importantly ‘motivated’ staff, who can be evangelists for the brand.
In PC’s, India has been a Windows country. So when a Mac had to be bought, one used to place the order to a specialist distributor who got the machine for you. And those guys were knowledgeable about the brand as it was their business to be so. And they catered to a small niche audience – designers, musicians and such like. Then came the iPod, iPhone and MacBook which found favour among a wider audience including students. The franchisee operated, specialist, Apple-only store was born. My experience with such stores has largely been positive, especially when it comes to the staff. They seemed to love Apple products too and we’re knowledgeable, helpful. But of late, I have seen staff who seemed disinterested, clueless and like any other store sales staff. Their personal phones (obviously) is likely to be an Android phone and I have seen them use it inside a store. Deep down it is just a job for them. Moving forward, with Apple planning to expand its retail footprint in India, this aspect – finding trained, motivated, knowledgeable evangelists – is going to be an issue for Apple.
But why is brand love important, you ask? The difference between being sales staff at any other generalist retail store and a specialist store like Apple is that in the latter, being part of a community is a critical aspect of the brand. The sales staff at a specialist premium audio brand (say Bose), IKEA or Harley Davidson store are knowledgeable and more often, believers. It is like meeting with kindred souls when you meet fellow Apple fans and users. It goes a long way in fostering a feeling of being special. Apple Stores (the original stores abroad and some franchisee stores here in India) did that. With Apple ‘corners’ in large format electronic stores and now with small neighbourhood stores in Tier II markets the challenge is to find staff who can be evangelists for the Apple brand. Chances are the staff will genuinely believe that the products they are meant to sell (in fact, convince) are of poor value and cheaper alternatives exist. India, like any other country (except US perhaps) is Android country when it comes to phones and tablets. The staff in the upcoming Apple franchisee stores come from a strata of society who perhaps cannot afford an Apple product and have probably grown up hating the Apple brand or worse still, being indifferent to it. They can be trained in the technical aspects & features of an iPhone or MacBook. But will they find the brand love within themselves? I doubt it. And that can show.