retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

The Apple Store is consistently pointed to an example of state-of-the-art retailing for its pared down approach to merchandising, Genius Bar, and the high sales-per-square foot numbers that it generates.

But now, as the New York Times reports, Apple is giving its stores a makeover, unveiling this weekend in San Francisco a new store design: "Wide aisles, including one with special displays devoted to photography, music and other thematic uses of Apple products, give visitors more room to wander, learn and play with the latest iPhones, iPads and Macintoshes. An open space that Apple calls the forum provides room for presentations as well as small classes on various topics.

"And then there are the trees. The back of the second floor is filled with ficuses, each encircled by a leather bench, where customers can wait or sit next to Apple’s 'geniuses' as they work on the customers’ gadgets."

Apple seems to be looking to give people in San Francisco's Union Square a place to hang: "A courtyard next to the store, which has a separate entrance and is open to the public 24 hours a day, has more trees, a fountain, free Wi-Fi and seating for about 200 people."

Now, not all these innovations can be replicated at all of the Apple Stores around the world. But Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of retail and online stores, clearly wants to create a town square kind of vibe, almost along the lines of Starbucks' vaunted "third place" approach. (Come to think of it, the only thing the new San Francisco store seems to be lacking is an espresso bar.) She says she wants to "make the Apple store a destination, not just a place to shop."

It is hard to know how successful the new store format will be. I tend to think that Apple Stores only are as good as the products they are selling ... if the products stink, it doesn't matter how many ficus trees there are or how comfortable the leather benches happen to be. The good news for Apple is that even though it seems to be on a creative plateau at the moment, and sales have reflected this, it still is selling products that are incredibly intuitive, beautifully designed, and highly desired.

But I do think there is something to be said for tinkering with a winning formula and trying to figure out what the next iteration should be - even if you have the iconic image that Apple does.

Being iconic, after all, only gets you so far. It describes what you were yesterday ... but not what you are today, and certainly not what you'll necessarily be tomorrow.

And that is the kind of Eye-Opening approach to business that keeps some retailers relevant.
KC's View: