If you’re a frequenter to either this or any of the other tech blogs online, you’ll notice that Apple recently reached their decade milestone of their (now) uber-successful Apple Stores and their installations of their new Smart Signs system.
This got me thinking about the innovations that Apple’s introduced into their retail stores over the years and their general adoption and penetration into the other facets of our consumer experiences. Here are just a few handful that I’ve noticed.
Shopping as an Experience
The Apple retail experience is now synonymous not simply with a high standard of quality, but also with friendly, personalized service tailored to your needs. It’s little surprise since the entire experience from store entrance to the Genius Bar has been crafted with that in mind, and the overall benefits are enormous. It encourages repeat and casual visitors (which, in turn, increases the chances of impulse purchases), as well as strong brand identity and loyalty. In fact, this model is so pervasive, that pretty much every other point below fits under this general umbrella and has been successfully adopted (in various degrees) by the likes of Microsoft (Microsoft Stores in the US), American Express (financial services as an experience), Best Buy (Geek Squad), restaurants (wireless payment terminals), and countless other institutions.
A large part of the seamless Apple shopping experience lies with their mobile iPod point-of-sales systems. Not only will they (gladly) accept payment wherever you’re standing in-store, but they can also reach out to their backroom to check and prepare inventory for purchase. Upon further thought, this move is just absolutely brilliant. Not only does it maintain a personalized level of service for prospective customers, but it also keeps a close tab on the customer preventing them from changing their minds and leaving. (Afterall, most Apple Store purchases aren’t cheap!) While most retailers aren’t sophisticated enough to have mobile POS, many restaurants will wireless mobile payment solutions, even on your PIN based debit or credit cards.
On-Site Support and Outreach
Oh, the Genius Bar. So simple, yet so clever. I’m sure each of you have [at some point in your iLife] visited the Genius Bar or have been to one of their training sessions. I’m still surprised at the lack (or at the very least, unacceptable level) of post-sales support that many retailers still offer. I, for one, know that neither Future Shop nor Best Buy will send satisfaction surveys asking about my shopping experience. Nor do many retailers offer personalized training to help make the most of my new shiny object. Sure, the quality of service for the Genius Bar has decayed slightly over the years, but it’s still much better than trying to find help anywhere else.
Not only that, but Apple has even made conscious effort to ensure that their product and message aren’t diluted by third party retailers. So much so, that the Apple reps that hang around the Apple kiosks in Future Shop and Best Buy are actually Apple employees (without the funky blue t-shirts, sadly). While those reps are now much fewer and further between, it really shows how Apple is meticulous in crafting their image and maintaining their brand and outreach model.
Lastly, we come to the latest of Apple’s retail innovations – Smart Signs. To be frank, I’m somewhat on the fence over Smart Signs. It’s certainly an interesting concept and has been executed well. However, I’m just not seeing the intrinsic benefit in them over regular paper signs and placards. Yes, it does provide real-time information about the product, and will probably make recommendations for various accessories and peripherals too. However, I think the big deal would come when Apple finally embraces Near Field Communications (NFC) to send product specs and information directly to your iOS device (for now, email will suffice). I certainly expect these Smart Signs to become a cornerstone of the Apple retail experience, but am unclear which direction they’ll take. Afterall, the iPad can fit into a myriad of different retail situations.
I know that I’ve missed a lot of retail innovations that Apple popularized (demo units that aren’t locked down, for one), but those were the big ones that popped into my mind. I certainly hope that more retailers pick up on Apple’s model of innovation and simply provide better service and earn their keep and pressure Apple to continue to deliver an even better retail experience.
For now, though, here’s to another 10 years of the Apple Store!
[Editor's disclosure note: I work closely with American Express in my daytime job.]
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