Apple Retail Stores: The Key To A Decade of Products Selling Themselves

An article in the WSJ about Apple retail stores, on the day that their leader Ron Johnson is lured to JCPenney.

Yes, it’s true that they are not comparable to almost any other store chain for many reasons, but even looking beyond that, the level of success in terms of any metric are equivalent to Babe Ruth redefining baseball out of the deadball area.  For example, sales per retail square foot are approximately 5X that of Best Buy and store profit margins are approximately 27X.

But, more important, it’s hard to see how Apple could have had the multiple smash rollouts of new product categories and upgrades (iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc.) without the retail stores.  The products do speak for themselves, but no way, that the products would have gotten the traction that they received if Apple was completely reliant on employees at big box electronics, department, or mobile phone stores to do the evangelizing to set it all in motion.  Think of your last experience with these folks at non-Apple stores.  I have rarely had the experience to suggest that their mandate was, as it is for an Apple store employee: “Your job is to understand all of your customers’ needs—some of which they may not even realize they have.”  Instead, it is something like “Your job is to convince a customer to buy something despite it being obvious that you have no clue about the product or how the product might meet the customers’ needs.”

The Apple retail stores were essential to the product success over the last decade, because the stores allowed Apple to present the products in a way that the products eventually sold themselves.  For a company that relies so much on product “magic,” much of the development and design magic could be extinguished by a sub-Apple “last mile” experience (which unfortunately describes the state of much of offline retail America).