The new Apple Stores show how compelling in-store can be

If your stores look and function as they did 10 years ago, you need to rethink design.

apple store palo alto
Credit: Martyn Williams

Apple is touting its newly redesigned Apple Stores, and they are indeed quite impressive. Conceding that the very nature of Apple's stores (very limited inventory, complete control of key products, customers who walk in already willing to buy, etc.) makes them hard to compare with a Walmart, Target or Macy's, they are demonstrating what an in-store experience can be like. Retailers would be well served to take note.

Peeking at the pictures of some of these new stores — such as one in Memphis and one in New York — the design is about simplicity and elegance. This is the same approach that Amazon has been taking with its handful of physical bookstores, where it displays books cover out. This allows for fewer books but it also enables a much more meaningful browsing experience. In a sense, that is what Apple has done.

The strategy? When competing with e-commerce sites with seemingly infinite inventory, a physical store can't ultimately win by stuffing the store with more inventory than can be absorbed by a shopper. Note: This is not to suggest that having 60,000 SKUs in the back of the store — away from customers' eyes — is bad. Let a customer ask for more of what is shown or for a less popular version not shown. But the showroom is just that: a place to aesthetically present your top products.

Readers of this column know that I have repeatedly argued that retailers need to radically rethink their stores. What customers want/expect/demand from stores today is quite different from they wanted/expected/demanded even five years ago.

There are some chains with an outstanding assortment of popular products and excellent prices — think Costco, Walmart and Target — that are exhausting to shop in. Consider Costco, which is only slightly worse than Sam's Club and BJ's. If you need to pick up a few items, the prospect of trying to navigate the poorly labeled, massive aisles is daunting. And there is no express lane, so buying two items still places you at the end of huge, slow-moving lane. (See last month's column for more rants on retail checkout aggravation.)

The store design overwhelmingly used in today's larger retail chains was created back in the day when e-commerce didn't exist and "mobile" meant a trailer. Experience is crucial.

Mobile apps to help navigate in-store showrooms is both far too rare and an illustration of the problem. Do you need an app to navigate an Apple Store? A Footlocker? Consider one of the chains that prides themselves on customer service, such as Whole Foods, Trader's Joe's or Nordstrom's. Have you ever been in one of those stores and felt the need for a digital map? They use bright, clear signage and helpful store associates to make navigation effortless. If you need an automated navigational aid to find Band-Aids and a jar of strawberry jelly at Walmart or Costco, can you actually argue that they don't need a serious redesign?

Even Dunkin' Donuts' corporate people are toying with store design, with sandwich kiosks. OK, not so sure who goes into a Dunkin' Donuts looking for a sandwich — especially one from a vending machine, a sandwich that doesn't even try to feign being fresh — but give them points for at least trying.

Back to the new Apple stores. The product displays are trivially nicer, with deep wood colors, but what is striking is a 37-foot, high-resolution display (Apple Insider put the cost of the display alone at $1.5 million per store) that commands attention from passers-by to come into the store. It's bold and bright and attention-demanding, which is a nice store-ization (OK, copy editors, if I limited my vocabulary to words that were already in the English language, I'd never get a column out) of the Apple marketing message for almost all of its products.

What e-commerce means is that you need to give shoppers a reason to want to be in your store. The quality of your products is almost never the reason, as long as an e-commerce rival can effortlessly deliver it with just a few clicks.

Note: If your chain doesn't have serious e-commerce rivals — pet stores, coffee shops, hair salons, etc. — great. But for most retailers, this is a very different world. Design your stores accordingly.

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