Apple stands alone in controlling the in-store experience

Would-be copiers have to understand that Apple's circumstances actually fit the word 'unique'

Apple Store
Credit: Wikipedia/Fletcher6

When it comes to redefining the brick-and-mortar shopping experience, no major retailer even approaches what Apple has done with the Apple Store. The Apple Store had real mobile payments long before anyone else, as well as in-aisle payments, long before anyone else.

(To this day, Starbucks, which often proclaims itself as a mobile payments leader, offers neither. Its mobile payment app simply displays a picture of the Starbucks card barcode. Starbucks deserves kudos for its efforts at behavioral changes — meaning getting consumers in the habit of paying via their phone — but its approach represents placeholder mobile payments at best.)

Apple has rethought sales commissions, cashwraps, loss prevention, in-store tech support and the use of space. But a word of caution: Don't fall into the JCPenney trap of trying to replicate Apple's in-store innovations without understanding why they worked for Apple and whether your chain's situation is similar. The word "unique" is too often abused, but it just might apply in Apple's case.

Consider pricing. Apple the manufacturer permits no non-Apple-owned retailer to sell its stuff for anything other than the exact price Apple dictates. Forget "manufacturer's suggested price." Apple has a "manufacturer's demanded price or else feel our wrath."

It would be easy to attribute this merely to extreme clout bestowed by market share. Although that's certainly part of the equation, there's more to it. Walmart has much bigger market clout and mammoth power over its suppliers, and yet you don't see it remaking and controlling its store environments nearly as much as Apple. Apple is even using its clout — and threatening to cut off supplies of its products — to persuade customer retailers (think Walmart, Target and Best Buy) to accept Apple Pay.

Last week, we saw yet another example of, well, let's call it Apple doing what no other retailer could even dream of getting away with. According to a report in the quite reliable 9to5mac site, Apple is instructing key suppliers to its stores of non-Apple products to redo product designs so that they all look like Apple products. (Can you imagine even Walmart making such a request?)

This is truly an attempt to visually control the Apple Store experience, down to the color selections of almost every product selected. When Apple says that it wants to control every aspect of the store experience, it really means it.

Before we look at what lessons to take away from this audacious move, let's look at what makes the Apple Store so different from almost any other retailer. For starters, the stores overwhelmingly have products controlled by Apple, along with peripherals that pretty much only exist to support those Apple products. That alone accounts for much of the difference, but there are lots of other manufacturer-controlled stores (AT&T Stores, NikeTown, Ralph Lauren), and they haven't reinvented the in-store experience.

Consider marketing and sales. A very high percentage of shoppers coming into the Apple Store do not need to be sold. They come in knowing what they want. They might be debating between an iPhone 6 and an iPhone 6 Plus, and they could persuaded about which third-party case or battery-charger to buy, but the associate's job is less salesperson and more order-taker. Also, given that the total number of SKUs in any store is far smaller than almost any other major retailer, the amount of product to memorize is a lot less. Suddenly, a different commission approach makes sense.

Apple is a terrific laboratory, where retailers can watch and see the kind of maze Apple is getting its mice to run through. But before thinking you should try the same thing in your stores, remember that the Apple mice have been known to camp out overnight to get into a store when a new product is launched — and to stand in multi-block-long lines when nothing is new other than it being near a gift-giving holiday. Some mice — and some mazes — are simply too different to replicate.

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