I was captivated when Apple opened its first set of physical retail stores in 2001. I’ve never owned a retail business, but I worked a variety of retail jobs growing up. What Apple did with retail was different.
I’ve always been endlessly fascinated by retail. Watching people browse, seeing how people choose what to buy, seeing how moving stuff around in a store can have significant effects on purchasing patterns, etc. Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy is one of my favorite books of all time.
When Apple finally opened one in the Chicago area over a decade ago, I rushed over there. I was in awe. What a unique retail experience. Just wonderful.
And for years I enjoyed visiting the stores. Whenever I needed something Apple, I’d go there. I’d rearrange my schedule to shop at an Apple Store.
But in the last few years, the stores have really turned me off. I don’t like stepping into them. They don’t make me feel welcome — rather they make me feel like I need a good reason to be there. Of course I have a reason to be there, but I don’t like the fact that I have to declare it upon entry.
At the door you’re often met by a bouncer who asks you what you need and then directs you here or there. “Please wait by that table over there for a guy with glasses and a blue shirt.” And so you go, awkwardly waiting. Not sure if you can leave your station, lest you miss your opportunity to talk to who you were directed to talk to. Then what?
I find the stores packed with so much Apple staff that you often have to break up a conversation between two staff members in order to ask a question. Now I feel like I’m interrupting someone just to buy something.
Am I being a little dramatic? I’m really trying not to be. This is just how the stores make me feel these days. And it’s not just one store — it’s a handful of stores I’ve visited. Some have been better than others, but there’s a general vibe I get when I walk in that just doesn’t sit well with me. Whenever I go to the Apple Store I feel like I’m on the clock. Like some other customer appointment is pushing up behind me. Hurry up. I can’t explain it beyond that.
Here’s an exaggeration, but not by much: The stores feel more like a deli experience — take a number, wait over there, we’ll call you when it’s your turn.
I recognize Apple is a victim of their success here. Due to unprecedented retail demand, they’ve had to institute protocols to manage the number of people and different kinds of customers. I’m sympathetic to the challenges — it can’t be easy. And they’re probably doing it better than anyone else could. But regardless, I’m just sharing how it makes me feel as a customer.
So just a few days ago my wife asked me to pick up a new iPad for her. She needed it quickly — shipping wasn’t an option. A few years ago I would have hopped in the car and ran down to the local Apple store. This time, I checked Amazon Now first to see if we could get same day delivery. Then I realized Amazon doesn’t really sell Apple stuff so that was out. I could have tried Postmates since they deliver from local Apple Stores, but it didn’t cross my mind at the time.
So I decided to go somewhere I almost never go: Best Buy. There’s one right around the corner from our house. A 10 minute walk, a 3 minute drive.
I walked in. The place was empty. This doesn’t bode well for Best Buy, but as a customer I kinda loved it. I could enter the store without being asked why I was there today. I just walked in and headed towards the dedicated Apple area in the back. When I got there I asked a guy if they had a 128 gig smaller size iPad Pro. He asked what color, I said gold. And he grabbed me one. Done. 5 minutes.
Then I happened to ask the guy if they had the iPhone 7 and if I could switch our service from T-Mobile to Verizon. I figured I’d have to go to an Apple Store to do this (which is why we hadn’t done it yet). Or an Verizon store (which is another reason why we hadn’t done it yet). He said, sure, no problem at all, and he was really helpful throughout the process. So we did that too.
They weren’t happy or unhappy to see me. They weren’t overeager or disinterested. They didn’t stop me before I started shopping. I was there, they were there. It was just a transaction. Smooth, fast, and fair. At Best Buy. In and out in a few minutes.
Again — if you break it down, it’s clear that Apple Stores are doing quite well and Best Buy stores aren’t. So this isn’t commentary on successful business models. It’s just a simple share of a shopping experience I had recently that surprised me. Best Buy feels simple, Apple Stores feels over engineered, too sophisticated. I get why, but why doesn’t matter to the customer experience. It’s either great or it’s not — the why behind the scenes doesn’t matter. Who’s been teaching me that for decades? Apple.