Apple’s success in retail, through its company-owned Apple Stores has been a subject of many articles & case studies. The fact that it is a success against all odds and its high sales- per-square-foot has been highlighted by many. My experience of a true-blue Apple Store is limited as I have frequented the reseller operated smaller outlets in India mostly. Though I have visited the Apple Store in Zurich a few years ago, I was looking forward to the most iconic of them all – the one on Fifth Avenue in New York. Aside from that, I also got a chance to visit the Apple Store at a mall in Charlotte, NC. Herewith some unsolicited thoughts on the experience:
Location and it’s rub off
It is said that the three most important things in retail are: location, location and location. While most retail businesses recognise that and take pains to ensure a good location for their store, it has special significance for the Apple brand. The Apple Store is always located in a premium part of town or a mall catering to a premium audience. The benefit is by association: since the Apple brand is seen in the vicinity of super-premium, luxury and aspirational brands, there is a subliminal rub-off to the Apple brand. It reiterates the perception that Apple is a premium, aspirational brand. In New York, the store is next to FAO Schwarz Flagship Store. In Charlotte, the store was in an upscale mall alongside Porsche Design, Hermes, Neiman Marcus and such like.
So when the so-called tech gurus talk of the need for Apple to launch mass market phones as a reaction to cheap Android phones gaining market share, it doesn’t cut ice with me at all. That is a game which Apple will never play and tech pundits constantly harping on it may well be a ploy to drag Apple into a plying field owned by someone else. Apple plays to its strength of a premium brand catering to a premium audience. Location is an important part of the retail mix and a premium experience is a must.
That community feeing
Before the advent of the iDevices, the cult-like perception of Apple was driven by Macintosh computers. The low market share numbers reinforced the cult feeling. The iPods, iPhones & iPads helped more people experience Apple products which are relatively a lot more mainstream now, especially in markets like the US. However, Apple promotes a community feeling, especially through their retail stores. This community is neither too big to include almost everyone (like say, being a cricket fan in India) nor too niche (like say, quiz fanatics). The fact that it is only Apple-made or Apple-compatible products on sale is distinctly different from being inside a multi-brand tech outlet. The staff are extra-friendly & courteous going out of their way to solve any issues or offer advice on Apple products (even if it is not bought in that store). I once took a Dell laptop to a company outlet in Bangalore with problems pertaining to Windows 8 installation. I was asked to visit the Dell support store elsewhere in the city. You are unlikely to face such issues at an Apple store, even the reseller ones.
Aside from the above, I noticed that the staff use iPhones and iPads to complete the billing process: these are in line with Apple emphasising that you can get a lot done with those devices. No ugly desktops or printers at the checkout counter either (if there is one, as in some stores the executive near a table takes care of everything from scanning and billing the product) gives a clean, efficient look & feel.
Aside from the product, I can see why the Apple experience in retail is a critical part of the marketing mix.