Retail Therapy: Inside the Apple Store
2013 Column Contest Winner
This isn’t brick and mortar, it’s glass and steel. J. K. Appleseed takes you backstage at Apple Retail, the supercollider of human expectations and consumer technology.
Let’s Get Ready to Rumble.
An Apple employee is never supposed to point when giving directions in their store. For example, when asked where the iPhone cases are sold, a specialist should either gesture with an open hand or, preferably, walk the customer to the proper location.
Why? When formulating the philosophy behind Apple Retail, brainstorming executives tried to recall their most exemplary customer service experience, which turned out to be hospitality at the Ritz Carlton. If you ask any bellhop, janitor, or maid for directions in a Ritz Carlton hotel, they are trained to drop what they’re doing and personally show you the way. The practice is impressive; it cements customer loyalty and you would never expect that level of attentiveness at, say, a computer store in a mall.
Now, telling you this should not violate my employee non-disclosure agreements. Apple can’t patent a practice they stole from another industry. However, they may argue its import was revolutionary, which is why I will write under a pseudonym.
An inside look starts with the store. As much attention as Apple pays to the aspirational architecture outside, they pay much more to the customer experience inside.
Nice entrance! Each glass step? Costs $35,000-plus to install.
Sales Floor or Red Zone?
Max is an Apple veteran on the sales floor. He hates cobalt blue. He worked at Disneyland and treats this job as a similar kind of corporate-regulated performance art. He wears a luxury watch and a Star of David on a thick gold chain because he knows these put him on more solid footing with those status-conscious shoppers who don’t appreciate advice from chipper, twenty-something salespeople less than half their age.
He explains, “Listen, friend. Red-rimmed spectacles are a warning sign in the Red Zone as surely as bright colors are on those frogs in the Amazon."
“I’m not being ageist. I love my Nana. But, here? In the Apple store? When that person with the senior citizen flair beelines at you? You know their device is broken. Or they don’t know how to use it. Or, hey, great, both!”
I fade back to observe while Max fields the customer with red specs. She gestures. She seems agitated. He asks to inspect her iPhone. He shows her something. She looks around. He shows her something else. He hands it back. She leaves.
Max says, “One, I could have told you this before she asked, she had it on vibrate and thought the speaker was broken. Two, she lost her email password. She thought I might know it. She goes, ‘What’s my password?’ Lady, how would I know your password? Me, a total stranger you’ve never seen before? But I’m at the Apple Store, so I’m going to remember a password you made up in your head? She asked if a manager could help.”
He’s rubbing his fingers together, which he does whenever he craves a cigarette.
“It was Gmail, whatever. I showed her where to answer security questions to reset her password. Oh, you’re welcome, Google.”
Max saves his snark for me, but that lady thinks he fixed her iPhone. There is no other company that has been more successful in getting middle and upper-middle class youth to proselytize technology to upper-middle and upper class baby-boomers than Apple. Think of all the college grads who told their parents to get a Mac as their next computer, or gave their old Macs to their parents, mostly to make providing IT support less of a pain in the ass.
Free workshops for newer products like the iPad, free classes on photography and music programs, and inexpensive Personal Training sessions are known in business as “loss leaders.” They don’t make money, but they add perceived value to the things that do. Just as important, they get people into the store, where Apple makes more revenue per square foot than Tiffany’s or any Mercedes dealership—or any other major retailer in the world. The strategy works—it attracts customers in droves, wrapping them in a friendly embrace and promising the computing-naïve, the aging, the slightly deranged that they too can be a part of the brave new world of mobile devices, The Cloud, and the Internets.
Granted, eight-year-olds have walked into workshops and showed me tricks on the iPhone that I didn’t know. (Three-finger double-tap? Hunh.) Teenagers usually try to stump me, asking questions for which they already know the answers. What’s fascinating and terrifying to the trainers in the Family Room is how perfectly binary categorization can become. Some proportion of the over-55 customers begin each lesson insisting they can no longer learn new tricks. A trainer has to learn to recognize which customers lose focus and how quickly, whether or not that customer is aware of it, and whether or not to bring it up. What can you do when, despite endless repetition, a customer cannot grasp the visual metaphors of windows? Or folders? Or a desktop?
That being said, customers like Marie can become dream students for the trainers. She’s in her 70s and drives in for a lesson almost every week. Marie has mastered purchasing music, building photo albums, and is designing multi-media scrapbooks for her friends. During one lesson on how to video conference over iChat, she joked with her husband that her young instructor was trying to woo her away with a diamond and a château on the Riviera. The Maries of the world get it when you make an allegorical connection between using a computer and something they enjoy, like cooking. Your laptop’s hard drive equals your kitchen cupboards, because that’s your storage. The RAM is your burners, or how many pots you can have boiling at one time. Clunky, but you’ve found common ground. These are the senior citizens who keep an open mind, a flexible attitude, and a sense of humor about change. There’s a reason they call it the brain’s “plasticity.”
On the other hand, a former model in her 50s comes in every week with toy dogs to berate any instructor who won’t build her logo for her. Trainer after trainer explains that their job is to teach, not to design-for-hire. Week after week, she won’t listen, won’t absorb, and management won’t expel her.
Is our brain’s functional lifespan genetic, or is it absolutely based on attitude? I pray it’s the latter, and that it’s something we can choose.
And maybe a former model isn’t a fair test subject. Marie, let’s be honest, has had the distinct advantage of great wealth. She’s classy. She’s old money. Marie chooses to learn to enrich her retirement; she’s not learning out of panic that her job’s relevance is evaporating.
When she feels her computer instructor may be growing impatient, the former model, like most adults qualifying for AARP, feels the need to don armor and reiterate how good she was at what she did. Trainers are trained for patience. However, the sixth time someone mistakes the power button for a mouse click, well, we’re human.
When Apple employees are asked what they love most about their job (and they are asked often) most invariably answer “the people.” They mean their co-workers, not the customers.
Because the daily expectations for customer service go beyond anywhere else in retail, only those with managerial ambitions will invoke their commitment to helping people. Some thrive on that. Others get diagnosed with PTSD. Consider that the flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City is open 24 hours and has more annual foot traffic than Yankee Stadium, yet only one door. Every day, in every Apple Store, people flood to customer service, when what many truly need is therapy.
Yes, standing behind a wooden counter while the customer sits on a stool lends the Genius both authority and credibility. No, it’s not ergonomic, and by the end of the day, despite the floor pad, your feet kill.
Nobody misses the reference to Game of Thrones when we say that standing there at the Genius Bar is akin to standing Night’s Watch on the White Wall. You just don’t know what’s coming at you next.
You know nothing, Jon Snow.
From behind the Genius Bar, I can check the customer queue on a laptop or on an iPod I keep holstered on my belt. The wait time hangs over everyone’s head. When customers have to wait more than five or ten minutes for their appointment, they get antsy. When the wait time pushes thirty minutes, they get murderous.
I call up the next customer, Debris.
I say, “Hi, I’m J.K.”
And she says, “I’m in a rush.”
Honestly, that makes me want to slow down, but I don’t. If I were female, as many of our Geniuses are, I might also get, “Why do I get a girl?”
To their infinite credit, they usually answer, “Must be your lucky day.”
Debris places her dog and one iPhone into her cavernous Dolce & Gabbana purse on the stool next to her. She hands me her other iPhone still in its Louis Vuitton case.
“It stopped working,” she explains.
“Well, I’ll see if I can fix it.”
“I don’t want it fixed. It’s no good. I need a new one.”
The implication is that luxury items shouldn’t be repaired, they must be replaced. Perhaps also punished.
Explaining my methods as I go, I check the liquid sensors. They’ve all been tripped, both inside and out. This isn’t like, oh maybe one raindrop magically shot down the earphone port. This sucker got submerged.
“Unfortunately, there has been some liquid exposure.”
There’s an online rumor that Apple employees are not supposed to use the adverb “unfortunately,” but it’s untrue so far as I know. Maybe it’s regional. There is another myth that keeping a water-damaged iPhone in a bag with dry rice will resurrect it. Finding jammed grains is always fun.
“Are you accusing me?” she accuses.
“No, I am not. I don’t know how, but this electronic device has been in contact with liquid, and that means it’s out of warranty.”
“You’re a liar. That’s impossible!”
Her dog growls. I look down and see it treating the other iPhone like a chew toy, coating the device in strings of bubbly drool. I wish I could flash the word SERIOUSLY? like a mental caption on the flat screens behind me for the other customers to see.
Louis CK has a great bit on smartphones where he points out how absurd people are about technology. They freak out over trivial, two-second inconveniences, and completely ignore the absolute miracle that their smartphone works at all.
This is the dilemma of working for a technology company that is also perceived as a luxury brand: We attract clients who understand that we provide the latest and shiniest things that they must have, while at the same time they have no idea whatsoever how to use them. I wanted to ask Debris, “Did you ever learn about electricity and water?” but instead just recite the question over and over in my head.
The bodybuilder was there with his tiny girlfriend. It’s her iPod they were waiting to have checked out. I was watching the queue, and we were running an egregious 17 minutes behind schedule.
It could be this guy was trying to act tough for his girlfriend. It could be he didn’t like skinny guys with glasses asking him to wait. He got in my face and said that if they weren’t seen soon, he’d shove the iPod up my ass.
I was totally psyched.
Let’s explore Loss Prevention. Theft hurts profit. Theft matters more with portable items of great value, like say a laptop, or a smartphone, or high-end speakers. Multiply that value by how many different models and spare parts an Apple store needs to keep in stock, and you have a few million dollars of goods on hand. Scale up more if it’s a big flagship store. That warrants not only video cameras and bag searches of employees, but armed professionals. Apple stores have the equivalent of undercover Federal Air Marshals on hand, like my friend Brock.
Brock commands our security team. These guys are 20-plus year veterans of the police force. Some of them were SWAT, too. They have seen it all. I’d heard stories, but had never been lucky enough to see a take down.
However, since Mr. Bodybuilding D-bag was threatening violence, I was policy-mandated to bring it to the attention of a manager and security.
“Excuse me,” my manager says.
The D-bag turns, but doesn’t open his mouth. He’s glancing left to Brock and right to Harry, and it’s actually hard to discern which one is wider. I can’t lie; it’s delicious how they make this guy feel small. I note the difference between gym-sculpted and street-hardened.
“I’m the manager. Did you say something to my co-worker?”
“No,” the D-bag murmurs.
“You didn’t threaten him?”
“Mmg,” the D-bag offers.
“You can’t threaten our employees, do you understand? Why don’t you sit down now, and we’ll help you out as soon as we can.”
The D-bag sits. His girlfriend avoids all eye contact.
The manager leads me away. Brock and Harry linger a bit and then retake their posts nearby.
“Nobody talks to you like that,” says my manager.
“Yet, we’re still not kicking him out?” I ask.
“You can take the next customer.”
I missed it. Two weeks later, Harry had to ask a customer to leave for ripping an iPod off its security cable. The customer responded by throwing the iPod, shattering it against the wall above the Genius Bar. Then the dude made the very poor decision of punching Harry in the forehead. Harry threw him down and punches were exchanged. Eventually the perp was dragged off the sales floor, leaving a dark trail of blood on the gray stone, which the janitorial staff sanitized immediately.
It occurs to me now just how much that security must help to keep those faces smiling among the blue-shirted.
Always One More
A manager scans the Genius Bar then approaches me. “Got something for you,” he says.
I exhale, leaving behind the comforting barrier of the Genius Bar for the open floor.
“See the lady that Dana is talking to?," he says. "Her cat just died. So did her hard drive. You’re going to sit with her while we see what we can do. It might not be much, so prep her for that. You got this.”
He strides off to the opposite side of the store. To put out another fire, I presume.
All employees learn acronyms of steps to help empathize with customers. I can’t disclose them, as the Wall Street Journal already has, but they’re less important than the holistic goal. The gist is this: If you’ve never lost a cat, like this fragile woman Barbara just has, you can at least conjure a loss that would be as significant to you, so that you can relate. If you can illustrate to her that you get it, you’ll feel more and seem fully sympathetic.
However, since my mom never let me have a pet, I got nothing. I consider lying. I don’t want to lie. I wish I knew how the repair was going. I tell her I have lost hard drives before. I try to laugh bravely to her about semesters of research and libraries of mostly legal music evaporating. How it’s nothing like losing a companion, but how devastating it was to my freshman self.
Barbara is deflating on the designer stool right in front of me when my teammate brings out her laptop and, thank God, it actually boots up intact.
“It’s working,” I beam.
“Do you know how to check my pictures?”
“Sure,” I reply. “Right here in iPhoto.”
A grid of images of Barbara and a silver-haired man spring up. I wish I could un-see some of the images in customers’ photo libraries, but these are extraordinarily vanilla. Awkward-seated portraits in a garden, by some boats, at the beach, basic slice of life banality.
“That’s my husband.”
She’s crying with joy.
“He died last year… before I could print any of these images out. Thank you!”
My stomach drops. This, my manager didn’t know to tell me. I try hard not think of what it would have meant had we not gotten her computer back online.
I look up at the dozens of people cradling their aluminum babies. Tapping their feet, chewing their nails, licking their lips, they’re worried bad about something that matters to them. I wish Barbara the best of luck, really meaning it, and excuse myself. I unholster my iPod and call out the next customer’s name.
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