Features, The New Rules of Retail, Trends

Angela Ahrendts’ Apple is No “Store” – It’s a Community

Selling stuff in an Apple store is nowhere to be found in Angela Ahrendts’ vision for Apple’s retail business, which she is in charge of as its SVP. Her vision of the brand (as I interpreted her words), is that it should be a living, breathing, “human” gathering place, a community whose DNA is shaped to match each unique community it is in, and to determine ways in which it can add value into those communities.

It took the incredible Apple force for change and promise of a new way to shape retail to attract Angela Ahrendts, then CEO at Burberry, to give up that role and join Tim Cook and take the lead at Apple Retail in 2014. She was no stranger to retail tech, having made Burberry a pioneer by bringing technology into the store via associates armed with iPads and using social media to connect with a new generation of luxury shoppers.

Angela sat down with Susan Hart, Global Retail Practice Leader at Spencer Stuart, at the recent Global Retail Conference, hosted by the University of Arizona, to talk about Apple’s continuous reinvention and reengineering of the retail experience. Angela’s comfort level with tech has been a tremendous asset in her ability to re-envision the Apple customer experience operating from the premise that “the customer is in charge today, the onus is on business to keep pace.”

Having joined a tech company after 30 years in fashion retail, Angela struggled to learn a new vocabulary to speak with the thousands of engineers at Apple. But, learn she did. She also spent more than a year visiting stores and asking the retail staff what they could be doing better. She connected and listened to employees, 66 percent of whom are full-time. She challenged them to come up with ideas that respond to local community needs that Apple should implement. Out of more than a 1,000 ideas, she narrowed the focus down to seven that span environmental and accessibility as well as helping startups and entrepreneurs. Her aha moment came when she reframed Apple Retail as the largest product Apple makes. Similar to an iPhone, the retail architecture is the hardware. Inside, the store (aka community), is a complex software system that produces an exceptional customer interface, (aka, experience). She observes that the Apple brand DNA is the same for its stores as its products. Angela pointed to her iPad and said, ” Everything you do on here you have to do in store. Plus we need to offer totally unique experiences in store that you could never do on the screen.”

It’s All About Community, Culture and Creative Commerce

Apple launched a new store design in 2016 that speaks to a higher purpose, reflecting the brand pillars Steve Jobs built: education and improving lives. Half of Apple’s 500 stores (267 are in the U.S.) were built prior to the iPhone launch. Angela, together with Jony Ive, has created a new post-iPhone store experience, one of community and culture, designed not simply to sell stuff. In fact, Angela took the word “store” off the moniker, revealing the name Apple Grand Central or Apple Union Square to emphasize the multipurpose of these venues as meet-ups. Over the next few months 100 Apple locations will see the branding refresh with plans to update the image of 30 to 35 additional stores a year, including new locations.

Apple’s store evolution mirrors the sensibility to balance being human with our greatest enabler, technology. This evolution is rooted in the human need to be social, the desire to learn and be a part of something bigger than ourselves. The result of this rebalance is a new design construct: The Genius Grove replaces the Genius Bar. The Grove brings a sense of humanity to the Apple environment with softer design elements and trees that replace the more clinical, minimalist look of the older Apple retail model. Apple cafes encourage visitors to linger. A Boardroom serving local entrepreneurs is an exact replica of the meeting rooms at the new Apple campus. In this way, Apple stores reflect the mother ship design aesthetic for the 67,000 people who work for Apple.

But let’s not forget (and even if it’s not in Ahrendts’ higher vision), the new Apple “community” (store) is also intended to sell things. The Avenue is a merchandise corridor that features a flexible accessory board with Apple-only products as well as a changing showcase of curated accessories. Angela eliminated 70 percent of the accessories in a typical Apple store and made 50 percent of those remaining items exclusive to Apple. The rotating curation of exclusive merchandise provides consumers with a reason for repeat visits to the store to test and learn. A new position was created, the Creative Pro, a gentler, more user-friendly role to help customers with demos of Apple-exclusive products.

Honestly what could be better than matching Apple’s sales per square foot (believed to be the highest in retail at $5000+) with the sincere desire to build community by creating a gathering place, or a town center, where everyone is welcome and offering educational sessions, workshops and product demonstrations. Today, 64 percent of the headcount is service focused, dedicated to answering questions and educating customers.

The Plaza and The Forum are the educational/social features embedded in the Apple rebuild, inspired by the Greek agora where Socrates taught, ideas were exchanged in lively debates and people traded goods and bought products. Angela says Apple’s sign of success is when people say, “’Meet me at Apple’ — to engage with new products, photography and music. In the world of automation we have to lead people back to creative thinking.”

Tell Them Everyday That You Like Them.

Angela has a strong communications ethic and reaches out weekly to the retail organization via streaming videos that capture three interesting or inspiring thoughts in three minutes. She believes that social leadership helps unite the team through “basic human contact and connections. This lets the team feel that I care. I share what we are doing, revealing new products before the customer sees them. It’s not rocket science,” she quipped, “you need to let them know you like them.”

An avid reader, Angela’s messages are often informed by what she has been reading including Thomas Friedman and Dov Seidman. Since she took the time to quote Seidman at the Global Retail Conference, we will here. “The world is dramatically reshaped and operates differently. We have gone from an industrial economy where we hired hands, to a knowledge economy where we hired heads, to a human economy where we hire hearts. When machines can out process, outperform and even outthink us, it is the things that machines can not do, the things that come from the heart, that are uniquely valuable and can never be automated or commoditized.”

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Businesses that address the heart, via products, services, and with the right employees that have heart, are the businesses that will last through the disruption that technology has wrought with the mixed blessings it bestows. In a world focused on data and consumer connectivity, Angela’s focus on tangible community is a differentiator and brings the transformative Greek agora alive to give Apple an essential voice in the cultural discourse.

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