It’s nearly a truism that Apple’s retail store experience is legendary. Steve Jobs set out to reinvent the retail shopping experience for computers, and as was usually the case, he succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. With Ron Johnson at the helm, Apple’s stores quickly became a Mecca for longtime Mac users, and critically began to attract new customers—“switchers”—who were ready to transition from PCs to Macs. When Johnson left to head JC Penney, it was clear that Apple needed a special person with real vision to fill his shoes. Apple instead chose John Browett, formerly of British retailers Dixons and Tesco.com, stores that were widely criticized for poor customer experiences. While some were pessimistic about what Browett would bring to Apple, others believed that Jobs’ and Johnson’s ideals had become too embedded in Apple’s culture or DNA to be undone. Unfortunately, evidence continues to mount that the cynics were correct: reports suggest that Apple’s most consumer-facing employees are seeing their work environment and very employment threatened by recent changes. There’s every reason to believe that these actions could have a serious impact on Apple retail and the company as a whole.
To be clear about this at the onset, generating revenue has always been a primary goal at Apple’s stores. It’s been widely reported that Apple makes more dollars per square foot than any other retail chain, often by a large margin, even when compared against jewel merchants and stores selling expensive clothing. Yes, a big component of that is the high-ticket items it’s selling, and the margins it’s able to make by selling its own and third-party items at their full suggested retail prices. But just as importantly, Apple has very intentionally made its stores into destinations full of helpful people and services—locations where you don’t mind paying more because of the positive overall experiences you have inside.
Traditionally, computer salespeople work on commission, and are therefore looking to make the biggest sale they can. By contrast, Apple’s Specialists have been trained to find the right solution for each customer: it’s surprisingly common to hear a Specialist talk a customer down from a computer that’s clearly overkill, instead suggesting one that fits the person’s needs better. Similarly, the Genius Bar isn’t there to make money, but rather to repair and enhance relationships. Some of Apple’s Creatives run personal training sessions and group workshops, even though they don’t actually generate any revenue themselves. The key has been to create an experience that people love and promote to their friends and family while coming back in again and again themselves. This sense of trust and enthusiasm—not forced hard-selling of products—has generated all of the Apple Stores’ success and goodwill to date.
Despite recent reports that might suggest otherwise, it’s safe to assume that most Apple employees really like their jobs. When treated properly, they feel like they’re part of something bigger than just a store, and want to help customers the best that they can. Making people happy without pushing products or services they don’t need or want results in a positive experience for everyone involved, and still brings in a lot of money for the billions-in-the-bank company.
A few weeks back it was reported that, in an effort to maximize profit, Apple had dramatically cut the hours of its part-time employees. We heard an anecdotal report of a Specialist who usually got scheduled for 30 hours a week getting slashed to just 8, a dramatic change that can—for students and part-time workers—really change one’s life and earning potential. At the same time, there were hiring freezes and even conflicting reports of layoffs. In retail, these sorts of things aren’t terribly uncommon, but the timing was unusual: it happened during the back to school season, one of the busiest times of the year for Apple stores, and right before the launch of a new iPhone which will bring lines of hundreds to each and every store. The timing also coincided with some of the most profitable Apple quarters in history, and widely positive outlooks as to the company’s future performance. After the changes became public, it was reported that Browett attributed the issues to a new scheduling formula, and told managers to let employees know that “we messed up.”
Since then, ifoAppleStore has reported that while scheduling is back on track for the most part, major changes are quietly being made that may seriously damage the soul of the Apple Store. This includes slashing the number of free workshops available to customers, replacing already limited training areas with more sellable product, and—shockingly—investing less in keeping the stores clean. Additionally, while various metrics always been used to track employee performance, they’ve previously been focused on whether staffers sold solutions such as AppleCare and One to One, which aren’t purely profit centers. Now, according to ifoAppleStore, the chain is putting a higher emphasis on sales volume, and putting pressure on Specialists to convince customers to pick up cases and other accessories along with their purchases.
As anyone who’s shopped in an Apple Store over the past few years can tell you, more employees are needed during busy times like these, not fewer. And although it mightn’t be apparent immediately, reducing services to facilitate more selling is eventually going to have a negative effect on customers’ experiences. These decisions seem to come from people who simply don’t understand or fully appreciate the fundamentals that Apple Retail was built on—the vision that Steve Jobs and Ron Johnson had. Of course mistakes have been made in the past, but none have seemed so obvious and serious to so many insiders and outsiders alike.
If things keep going this way, it’s seriously possible that Apple Stores could quickly become more and more like the retailers they were designed to be the opposite of. Higher sales requirements could mean bringing in more “salespeople” and fewer passionate Apple fans. Potential employees who have made Apple Store recruitment comparably selective to Ivy League schools may look elsewhere for positions. And customers could very well be turned off by dirtier, pushier stores offering fewer services to bring them back in. Not many people actually like the experience of shopping at say, Best Buy, and many actually actively dislike it. It’s time for Apple to roll back its latest changes, have some serious discussions about the thinking that led to them, and start planning for a better, happier future.