Welcome to Apple Retail!
That was lame. Let me try again.
Welcome to HELL!
My co-worker bet me a hundred bucks I wouldn’t try that. Terrible idea.
Sorry, I’m just… I’m still in utter shock that CEO Tim Cook arranged for you to have a sit down chat with a regular employee like me. There’s so much to say, and I really want to start out on just the right note.
Ok, wait. I got it. Here we go.
On behalf of the employees of 424 Apple Stores worldwide, let me be the first to say, in the words of comedian Kevin Hart,
They got the drop on us!
My back is up against the wall!
This is not a drill!
For a company that claims to care about sustainability, Apple burns through its retail workforce at a shocking pace. Morale has been sliding for years. Employees look to you as a new hope for many reasons.
You are, what we’d call in America, “kind of a big deal.”
Rumor had it that your first week this May would be marked by some “enormous” event, which turned out to be an entirely anti-climactic alteration to trade-in guidelines on certain iPhone models. Nice job, blogosphere! Way to welcome Ms. Ahrendts with her first and very own false Apple rumor! (I’m looking at you, The Unofficial Apple Weblog!)
Angela, as the former CEO of Burberry, you drove a fashion brand with infectious luxury appeal and made prescient advances into the exploding Chinese marketplace.
Last month, the Queen of England bestowed damehood upon you, which is the female equivalent of knighthood. Although “knight” sounds cooler than “dame” to me, your official rank of “Dame Commander” is still utterly badass. You need to make Jony Ive call you that, even though he was knighted first.
Last week, your signing bonus, a package of stock options evaluated at $68.1 million, made front-page headlines. That’s bigger than winning my state’s lotto. Twice.
You’ll be the first woman on Apple’s ten person executive board. If the rumor that you may be groomed to take over Tim’s spot is true, we could definitely use your charisma during major presentations. No offense, Phil “Can-you-believe-our-head-of-marketing-is-named” Schiller.
For so many reasons, not the least of which is the media’s tendency to bash on Apple and constantly predict its eminent demise, Tim Cook seems to have chosen wisely. Who else could reinvigorate the brand better? Who exudes more class and upscale modernity than a British technocrat?
I should apologize for all this pedestalizing.
Chalk it up to desperate hope, because we’ve seen some spotty leadership over the past several years.
After this chat, you will operate at a vantage point 30,000 feet high, whereas I will return to the front line trenches, so there’s nothing I want get off my chest more than to tell you what Apple Retail has felt like during our last three regimes.
Though he is not your direct predecessor, Ron Johnson was the original Senior Vice President of Retail Operations.
Before Apple, he was the CEO of Target. Before him, Target was basically KMart. In America, that’s synonymous with cheapness. Johnson is credited with lifting the brand above its competition. He upgraded the Target customer experience. He upgraded both impressions and expectations of the stores, and he brought in higher quality product lines and designer names. He engaged. He helped stamp that red Target logo and playful commercials into our consciousness.
When tapped by Steve Jobs to pioneer the idea of brick-and-mortar Apple Stores, Johnson helped to develop the now iconic Genius Bar and to shape each location into an inviting place to play with technology.
Pretty solid so far, right?
I know Johnson used to personally interview Store Leader candidates. Meeting him was a privilege and a nerve-wracking trial by friendly fire reserved for those who were several promotions up the management ladder from me.
But at ground level, I was too busy getting yelled at by customers who didn’t understand the basic concepts of email, or by customers who had been told outright lies at AT&T stores back when they were our only carrier partner for iPhones, or being assaulted by scam artist resellers to ever worry about what I’d say to RoJo if I met him.
The veterans in Apple Retail felt as though the barrier of entry had been lowered. There may have been a time when those in creative fields led the charge to Apple products, but the brand had gone mainstream. A much broader spectrum of customers who needed systematic hand-holding were flowing in. Staffing requirements shifted from hiring experienced technology professionals to recruiting generalist sales staff with far fewer needs or expectations of retention.
We began to bleed talent. There was a clear lack of upward mobility, and I think watching assistant managers from Gap and Starbucks take managerial positions made the more experienced employees realize that for all the training and promise of advancement within this innovative, magical company, Apple Retail was, in fact, still retail.
That meant there would always be a line of college kids behind you willing to work for low wages, particularly when those wages weren’t so low as wages in other retail jobs.
Ron ruled long enough to watch Apple Retail become a victim of its own success. The inviting spaces had become over-crowded. The elite hires felt stifled and left. The new hopefuls quickly grew cynical. Fewer and fewer believed in the myth of rising to corporate via the stores.
iPhones would be so successful that existing time management models for running the Genius Bar were shattered, requiring complete overhaul and constant emergency updating.
As a reward for his efforts, Johnson had 700,000 stock options to exercise. Of course, he dropped them the second the prices seemed to falter below the $200 mark, which earned him $112-million profit, but tanked the prices for all other holders.
I had respect for what he’d built, but I wasn’t sure he understood what he’d wrought. I never felt as though his stiff, slow-hand-chopping, video addresses at Store Meetings brought him any closer to what my daily experience was actually like.
And why would he want to come closer? My feet hurt from standing all day. My faith in humanity gets dented when someone who toilet-drowned their own iPhone shouts in my face for ten minutes. I weather things he never imagined, and a video thank you and a free hoodie didn’t seem to cover it.
By all accounts, he was supposed to be an incredibly nice guy, but damn if I didn’t feel a bit of schadenfreude mixed with my sadness when I heard that he was ousted from his next job at JC Penney. His rush to upgrade that chain and to renew his retail magic faltered. They say he didn’t understand the limitations of his resources and that he alienated their core customers, who were elderly and discount-addicted.
Maybe you can only bottle lightning once.
In 2012, when John Browett took over Apple Retail, new hires were suddenly informed they were not truly hired until they passed a certain “tryout” period. Many were terminated right after the busy holiday season.
Too much lateness and too many absences can result in termination. This was widely understood, but rarely enforced. Suddenly, it became strict policy. Our Store Leader asserted that there was no change in policy, but everyone understood the opposite.
Have you ever visited an Apple Store on Black Friday or the week before Christmas?
Grossly understaffed, we soldiered through holidays and product launches. We continued to hemorrhage senior talent, who left thoroughly demoralized, with middle fingers blazing, convinced the Apple Store had finally jumped the shark.
We now know Browett was cutting staff to boost profits, even though it’s widely known Apple sales employees bring in sales profits many times higher than their own salaries.
In a retrospective interview, Browett claims that he was ousted for, “Fit, not for competency.” Some analysts also point to Browett’s failure to expand in China quickly enough.
There’s an accepted media practice that when an executive leaves Apple, the CEO’s announcement usually contains the words, “He will be missed.”
I don’t think Browett actually got that, and it was noticed.
He claims to have learned “humility” from his time at Apple and that he has become “a much nicer person.”
Well, yay for him.
I think you’ll still be working in his wake, so to speak.
After Browett, if it felt like a slap to our face to have our friends lose their jobs in the name of “increasing profits,” the following period of two years during which Apple Retail had no official leader were almost worse.
Do you know who ran our ship when there was no captain?
Neither do I.
We were told other Senior VPs were splitting up our leadership during their spare time. What does that mean? Is there some desk where files get shuffled, and they took turns? We were officially the only branch of Apple that lived in the shadow of its middle management. We were rudderless, and we knew it.
Check the Net Promoter Scores, those surveys we fill out to rate our own job satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10. Check the numbers for how likely we would recommend working for Apple Retail.
I trust you’ll find a dip during the last few years, a clear metric to back up these anecdotes.
Back to the Future
I mention statistics because I’ve tried to do a bit of due diligence reading up on your own track record as a way to envision your upcoming tenure.
According to the UK’s Guardian, your approval rating as a CEO at Burberry was 90%, compared to the average CEO approval rating of 69%. It’s possible employees who want to be in fashion are happier they’re there, but you still beat out Ralph Lauren, who scored 84% with his employees.
There were complaints about work life balance and the culture of communication, but this is always the case.
You did incredibly well.
They’re telling me my time is almost up.
If you ever want for reference or a good chuckle, I have ten installments of this column detailing the inside experience of Apple Product Launches, Store Meetings, One-to-One Training, Genius Bar decision-making, etc.
I realize this work is like a time capsule I started writing for customers and co-workers, but I’m proud to offer you this resource. It’s certainly better curated than the army of venting tweeters I’ve joined.
But, one last thing, as Steve Jobs loved to say.
Ms. Ahrendts, I know we operate from very different vantage points.
In the store, I have to deal with scam artists, rumor victims, conspiracy theorists, some genuinely great folks, but also a lot of sociopathic frequent fliers who flock to customer service to get their rage on.
In Cupertino, you have to deal with Amazon, Samsung, Spotify, and China.
We have to think differently from one another, and I get that.
But, I’m one of the 40,000 retail employees who work for you. 30,000 of us are American.
Over the phone, online, and in person, we’re the roots in the mud that filter funds and power up the trunk of middle management all the way up to the 10 flowers in the sun that comprise the executive board.
I hope you champion some sense of connection on our behalf. Customers matter, but so should we.
My friend Max, a Specialist, says fleas shouldn’t care if they’re on the back of a mouse or an elephant. We’re all just happy someone’s at the steering wheel again.
Hey, that’s funny, look at that sign out the window. It’s perfect.
Welcome to Infinity Loop, Please Drive Carefully.
(If you or someone you know works or worked for Apple, please share this column with them. I bet they’ll have some stories to share, and I’d love to hear them.)