A few months after the opening of the store in Union Square, San Francisco, Apple is opening its first “Town Square” shop in Europe, on Regent Street, London. 2016 is a pivotal year for Apple’s retail division. This pivot can be seen in two symbolic details:
- Angela Ahrendts is now SVP of Retail (instead of Retail & Online Stores)
- The stores are no longer called Apple Store but just Apple + Name of the location (we kept store in the title of this blogpost for SEO reason 😉
- More concretely, after the “merge” of online store with the main website in 2015, Apple is now “rolling out” their new vision of what a flagship store should be, 12 years after re-inventing the rules of retail.
Don’t call me flagship, call me town square
To understand the new store, we need to understand the new concepts they are built upon. Apple, alongside Foster + Partners, have decided that their new flagship stores will become a “town square”. Even if Apple never officially uses this name (Foster + Partners do), the idea behind a town square is that the store should be more “integrated” in the community, or as Angela Ahrendts says “We are not just evolving our store design, but its purpose and greater role in the community as we educate and entertain visitors and serve our network of local entrepreneurs.“
Alongside this new ambition, the store itself develops new concepts:
- The forum: a big digital screen where people gather.
- Genius grove: a more intimate way to get help by sitting side-by-side with a genius.
- The boardroom: a private place for the business team to offer some advice and training.
Big screens, places to sit with Genius’ and a private room for the business team to work, really how different can this be from current stores?
Apple trees and vegetation wall
From an aesthetic perspective, there are not really major changes from usual Apple stores: demo products on the tables, products to buy on the wall, lots of space, lots of staff. There is one major change however; the appearance of trees and vegetation walls in the store.
Both have two functions:
- “Bringing back nature into interior spaces”.
- Giving people more places to sit.
Indeed, beyond the aesthetic aspect (and maybe a reference to Apple’s first logo, even if in Regent Street the trees are ficus alii, not apple trees), it’s all about creating sitting areas.
Come and play, come and play (forget about the movement)
So beyond new metaphors and the novelty of nature in the store, what are the major changes to the store? Fundamentally, how do you re-invent the flagship store experience in an omnichannel era, when you are a brand with one of the most loved and popular products in the world? You make the notion of a store disappear in order to make the product experience playful. In order to do so, Apple has introduced 3 main elements:
No security on the demo products (and no visible CCTV).
This is really a strong one. You can literally walk away with any device (of course, you can’t put an iPhone on airplane mode, yes I tried, and yes devices are made unusable if you try to steal them). The great thing about this is that you can really “experience” the product. You can walk around and sit anywhere to enjoy the product. The bad thing is that sometimes there are no products to try. I tried to get a Jet Black iPhone and the sale assistant was a bit embarrassed to be unable to help me.
Full demo products.
Not only you can use the devices anywhere, but the devices are loaded as if they were real devices. Fake iMessages, fake calendars events, fake photos. For example, the iPhone has around 30 third party apps, specially created for the Apple stores. The attention to detail is going so far that you can order a (fake) ticket using the Trainline app (using John Appleseed’s credit card, of course).
Sitting areas (almost) everywhere.
To reinforce this sense of freedom, the store is full of places to sit, so people can try the product in comfort. Interestingly enough, it seems to be a policy for the store assistants to invite the customers to sit when paying or discussing a product. This also helps with the flux of the people in the store by making clear passages. Beyond these main elements, a lot of little details reinforce this idea of not being in a store, for example the absence of physical price tag, the till hidden in the demo tables or the fact that most of the product boxes are empty.
A customer can have any product they want as long as it’s an Apple product
The overall feeling is a store less packed, airy with places to sit, and no pressure to buy. The other side of the coin is that is hard to buy anything other than Apple products. The SKUs have just melted, the most shocking being the headphones section where once you ignore the Beats By Dre headphones, you could only buy a few other types of headphones (mostly Bose). Even from a space perspective, the mezzanine where all the 3rd party products are, felt overwhelmed by demo/genius tables. I almost felt bad to try headphones and bluetooth speakers. This was a strange feeling knowing how much the ecosystem for Apple products are also part of the product experience. One exception to this was the Internet Of Things shelve where you could find most of the HomeKit products available.
And what about the digitalisation of the store in all this?
One of the interesting point about the new store is the absence of digitalisation “experience”. No RFID in the product (Burburry Prosum), no projection mapping (Made.com) on the wall, no augmented reality (LEGO store), no big Minority Report Screen (Google in Curry’s). Just the products.
You could say that you don’t need to digitalise your store when you actually sell digital products. Or that it would be dishonest to offer an artificial experience that you can’t replicate with real products. I’m still not sure if Apple is too honest from this perspective or just too conservative, even more when you note Angela Ahrendts past at Burberry.
Conclusion: a playful experience, almost ashamed to sell you a product
A brand always in-between its elitist vision of what a product should be and the need to sell those products. The vision of the retail future for Apple is quite simple: people should only buy a product if they really love it.
A store should remove as much friction as possible between a person and the experience this person can have with a product. To do this, you should feel free to do whatever you want with the product, and have enough tables or seats to play as much as you want with it. You should also have all the support you need to understand and learn how to get the most from your product.
But by hiding price, reducing the number of products visible and available, are we in a store or are we in a showroom? I’m conscious that this tension between a shop and a showroom is inherent to a flagship store, a place to experience a brand but sitting in a premium location driving an influx of people. This is heightened for Apple, a mainstream brand commoditizing luxurious experiences.
The very clever motion-detection plug tray integrated in the tables.
*Cover photo by Nigel Young/Foster + Partners