The Yin and Yang of the Apple Store

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I have seen a lot of complaint articles and negative Twitter pile-ons about the current design and operation of Apple Stores over the past few months. Some of this was likely stirred up by the departure of Angela Ahrendts from the company. She had spent a lot of her time at Apple giving Apple Retail a new makeover, getting rid of some iconic features like the Genius Bar in favor of a more open and communal space setup.

There have been more recent comments made since the departure of Jony Ive from the company a few weeks ago. While Ahrendts was the driver behind the changes to the Apple Stores, Ive was the lead designer. As with Apple Park, his commitment to open spaces and environments is taken just about as far as it can go. Anything at the extremes like that tends to be polarizing, so most will either love it or hate it.

While I am not as critical of Apple Stores as most, I recognize that the bulk of these complaints do have some validity. The extreme openness leads to a lot of disorganization when combined with the crowds that these stores tend to draw. People visit Apple Stores for all kinds of reasons: to shop, for repairs, to browse, and just to play around. Then you also have classes going on in the store most days, especially on weekends. Add in a device launch and you have even more chaos.

So I get it. Removing the Genius Bar has left people seeking repairs and help wandering around the store, waiting to be called. There are constantly long lines at the door as people have to “check in” for various things. It can be a hot mess on just a normal Summer afternoon.

I do agree that Apple has pushed the open concept design a bit too far. It does lead to more frustration and chaos than is necessary. However, I don’t agree that Apple has totally ruined their retail experience. As a long-time patron of Apple Stores, I think the drama level of some of the complaint articles is pretty ridiculous. Personally, I don’t think the company is far from hitting the right mix of open and organization. In my opinion, adding a bit more structure back to he design would hit the right mix for what they are currently looking to do with their retail stores.

I am writing about this because I am currently sitting on a somewhat uncomfortable wooden box while my daughter takes a Procreate drawing class at our local Apple Store.

Our Memphis area store isn’t huge, but it is wide-open, as most small to medium size store are these days. We are at the back of the store and the teacher has control of the big screen to demonstrate different drawing techniques and features of Procreate.

When we got here, my daughter and one other person were the only two following along. I am no artist, so I am sitting here taking it all in and writing as she works on her treehouse sketches. As I sit and observe, I can see how the openness of the store contributes to the educational focus that Apple has placed on them. While the class started with only two people, several others came up and joined in after seeing what was going on. Apple always loans out iPads for their drawing and coding classes, so anyone can participate, even if they don’t own a device. The reason that people joined in is because the class is out in the open and they saw it in progress. The openness of the class environment encourages participation.

I also noticed a lot of people who were at the store for appointments to either pick up a new device or to get an overview of it. Someone would call them and they would go to a table to get a one-on-one session covering their hardware of choice. Again, the open concept works well here. I don’t ever use these services, so it’s easy to forget that they exist. As with people joining in on a class that they didn’t come for because they happened to see it going on, seeing people get called for one-on-one sessions with Apple devices is an encouragement to use such services.

So, even if the Apple Store’s current setup is a bit annoying when you show up to pick up a device or take care of repair, remember that the current design serves the other purposes of Apple Retail very well. Those other services, such as free classes, services for educators, and on-on-one appointments are things that most other tech companies aren’t concerned with. There is tremendous value, both for Apple and consumers, in these personalized services.

While I agree that a little more structure and organization would benefit everyday Apple Store shoppers, I also appreciate the benefits of the open concept while I’m watching my daughter and others have fun getting some well thought-out (and free) instruction on how to be even more creative with their devices. I can’t help but think back to Steve Jobs’ statement about Apple inhabiting the intersection of technology and liberal arts at the release of the iPad 2 not long before his passing.

The current setup of the Apple Store is specifically geared toward that end and my experience today was a good reminder that there is something to be said for it.


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