A tale of two Apple Stores (the first two)

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A new kind of store

Around the turn of the century, Apple had been plagued with a decade of bad retail experiences at the hands of others. When the company decided it needed to expand into retail on its own, Steve Jobs looked to the outside and hired the best experts he could find to help the cause.

In 1999, Apple added Millard "Mickey" Drexler, President and CEO of The Gap, to its Board of Directors to give the company a touch of seasoned retail experience. The following year, Apple hired Ron Johnson, a former Target marketing executive who transformed Target from a K-Mart clone into a trendy retail destination for those seeking inexpensive but well-designed housewares.

It was Johnson, now a Senior Vice President, who masterminded Apple's retail plan. When first tasked with creating an Apple Store experience from scratch, Johnson found himself confronted with a sparse, stripped down Apple product line that had been the victim Steve Jobs' drastic (but necessary) pruning over the previous four years. He wondered how he could fill an entire retail space with only four product categories (which happened to be the iMac, iBook, Power Mac G4, and PowerBook at the time).

After a few false starts, he realized that Apple should focus on the overall experience of using the products and, most importantly, the solutions they can provide to the customer. They could dedicate sections of the store for customers to actually use the products so they could see these different solutions in action.

At the time, Apple's marketing angle positioned the Macintosh as the "digital hub" of the home. Ads focused on what customers could do with their Mac, whether it be to edit a digital movie, burn a CD, or organize their music collection. Johnson recognized that a customer's relationship with a Mac was a long-term and intimate one, with the Mac serving as both a tool and a companion. Internally, he referred to this concept as the "Apple lifestyle."(Image Caption: Though it opened hours after the McLean, Virgina store, it has been reported that the Glendale, California store is considered)

Whereas a product purchase at another retail outlet marked the end of the store's relationship with the customer, in the Apple Store, the purchase would only be the beginning. All Apple Store visitors would be welcome to experiment with Apple hardware and software in the store.

What's more, returning Apple customers would receive free (or inexpensive) service from the Genius Bar in the form of questions answered, parts replaced, or computers repaired. The store would also build up a culture around it through free seminars and community events hosted at the location.

An unexpected success

Johnson's approach with the Apple Store worked, and it worked well. Over 7700 people visited Apple's first two stores in its first weekend alone, eagerly snapping up $599,000 of merchandise and happily loitering in a place completely and totally accepting of the Apple lifestyle.

Attendee reaction to those first stores was notably ecstatic, and the press response (even the non-Apple press) carried with it an unusual tone of feverish excitement, which was typically absent in the slightly dour and jaded era. It was as if both consumers and the media had seen something completely new and unexpected: a retail experience as original and exciting as one of Apple's famous product reveals.

In time others flocked to the stores--not just Mac fans--and the welcoming, exploratory nature of Apple's chain, crafted by Johnson, Jobs, and his team, is why it's almost impossible to find an Apple Store that is not bustling with people today.

The financial and critical success of Apple's first two stores paved the way for the hundreds of Apple Stores that now span the globe. Plans for more stores are in the works, and there presently appears to be no end to Apple's retail success in sight. All this because of a wise decision Apple made in the season of discontent. It is, truly, the best of times for Apple.

Benj Edwards is a freelance writer who specializes in computer and video game history. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to vintage technology.

This story, "A tale of two Apple Stores (the first two)" was originally published by MacCentral.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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