By Quentin Fottrell
Apple’s minimalist retail stores, like its gadgets, get generally rave reviews. So while it may be tempting for the company’s newly tapped head of retail not to mess with the formula, judging from complaints posted on consumer message boards, there may still be room for improvement.
Earlier today, the company announced that it made a major appointment to revamp its retail division. John Browett, previously the CEO of the U.K. electronics chain Dixons Retail, will join the company in April as senior vice-president in charge of retail operations and expansion. Though it’s unclear what changes may be in store, experts say Browett may get some tips by searching though customer gripes. (Apple declined to comment).
The most common complaints on online message boards like AppleInsider.com, MacForums.com and Yelp.com seem to be directed toward the store’s staff: a blue-shirted army some customers contend can come across as smug. Take this comment from FreeMacBlog.com: “Apple workers are too programmed. They think everyone is a switcher. They assume all customers need the basics taught.” Tech analyst Jeff Kagan says they have reason to feel good: Apple stores can afford to pay better salaries than many other chains, he says: “That creates a sense of excellence, but it can also create a sense of arrogance.”
Customers are also not always so impressed with the store’s locations. Apple stores are not necessarily convenient for those who want a quick trip to the store to buy an iMac or a pair of earphones, they say. For instance, Apple’s Las Vegas, Nevada, stores are all located right in the middle of the strip. One online poster on FreeMacBlog.com had this to say: “It seems that the majority of Apple Stores are in great retail locations, but they often cater to visitors and tourists,” the customer says. “The parking is busy and it’s out of the way for anyone who lives here in Las Vegas.” Another Chicago, Il. resident says Apple stores are too concentrated in certain parts of the metropolitan area. “How about locations spaced out better?”
The clinical, photo-ready look of Apple stores lends an air of mystique and gained acres of media coverage during iPad and iPhone launches, but they can be intimidating to customers, too. “The Apple store appeals to a very specific segment of the population,” says social psychologist and Apple customer Matt Wallaert. “Mom and pop go to Best Buy and the Geek Squad, junior goes to the Apple Store and the Genius Bar.” More store employees should be made to work in the shipping facilities so they understand all parts of the business, he says. It would be humbling, too, he says: “It is frustrating and difficult for tech people to talk to non-tech people, and not all of them handle that with grace.”
Experts say Apple should also be careful not to expand too much too soon, which could erode their luxury/technology brand. “The real challenge they have in their anticipated growth is scaling the customer service and knowledge Apple employees are known for,” says technology blogger Joe Manna. “Too many stores could mean Starbucks overload,” says Odysseas Papadimitriou, founder of CardHub.com. But Manna says more Apple displays like the 25 currently being deployed in Target stores could help alleviate extra costs that could ultimately lead to higher prices on products.
However, Apple made a smart choice with the former Dixons CEO, particularly as he is an outsider new to the brand, analysts say. In the U.K., Dixons improved its brand by building more gleaming megastores and differentiating itself from the pack, according to Robert Passikoff, co-founder of marketing research firm Brand Keys. But he says Browett’s focus will be on keeping customers happy as Apple doesn’t have a direct rival in the luxury/technology retail space. “Mr. Browett already inherits a vibrant environment and brand,” he says, “but maybe his budget will be a lot bigger than it was at Dixons.”