Steve Jobs' Greatest Invention: The Apple Retail Store
Apr 19, 2012 5:00 AM PT
I've changed my mind about the greatest invention of Steve Jobs. It's not the iPhone, it's not the iPod, iTunes, or white earbuds. And it sure as heck isn't the iPad. While the original, friendly, all-in-one Macs certainly broke new ground, I see their basic ideas and form factors as inevitable -- someone, at some point, would have invented something like the iMac eventually.
What about the App Store and iTunes, both of which deliver billions of products to consumers around the world? Pretty cool and wicked smart, but the greatest invention ever out of Steve Jobs? No way.
So what did Jobs "invent" that far eclipses all those awesome products?
The Apple Retail Store
A New Way to Sell
All the other products, in my mind, are natural inventions. They took a look at crappy alternatives and imagined something much, much better. Even the iPhone. Sure, it bucked the button trend and introduced the world to touchscreens and Gorilla Glass, but it was still a smartphone.
The Apple Store, though, might very well be Steve Jobs' most important invention. Not to the world, but to Apple.
Huh? you might be thinking. A retail store is his greatest invention? We've had brick-and-mortar stores forever. And besides, you lost me when you dissed the iconic white earbuds!
No, there are two key reasons why Apple Retail Stores have been critical to Apple's success, and more importantly, critical to turning gadgets into game-changing devices.
First, the success of an Apple product depends entirely upon customer interactivity -- touch and feel and use. The TV commercials are amazing, but the masses of consumers won't shell out hundreds of dollars unless they can experience the quality inherent in the design and action of the device. The Apple store lets consumers, many for the first time ever, touch and hold something as sturdy and light as the MacBook Air.
Second, an Apple store sends an implicit and explicit message -- actually, many messages -- to anyone entering or even walking by: "Here There Be Quality." The message is the exact opposite of warnings about dragons on the edges of unexplored areas of a map. Apple Retail Stores are well-lit, feature glass, and invite you to touch and feel its products. Apple isn't worried that you're going to break the products, and that alone says something: Apple products are durable.
Before Apple stores, I remember walking into other establishments to check out laptops and being accosted by stickers all over the computers. And when it came time to touch, they were bolted down. Worse, it was normal to see missing keys and greasy track pads. After all, they were just the display models. And some display devices were simply empty plastic mockups.
Apple Retail Stores Are Now Destinations
While the Apple store concept started as an important outlet to showcase Apple products that Steve Jobs could control down to every detail, the locations have evolved into something else entirely -- destinations for millions of Apple fans, whether or not they plan on buying anything.
Now, whenever I go near an Apple Store, I try to swing by for a visit. Doesn't matter if it's just a mall-based store in the Seattle area. I still make it habit to go in, and all my friends and family know it -- heck, if we're heading out, they're even proactive about it -- willing to drop me off or make sure we end up near one.
But what I really relish are new cities and new stores. I'm not planning vacations or business trips around Apple stores, mind you, but when I recently visited San Francisco on business, one of my first walkabout stops was at the Apple Retail Store on Stockton Street.
The place isn't exactly a flagship Apple store, but it has a sweet glass staircase. It was packed with Apple employees and packed with people, and for the most part, despite the high density, everyone was happy. Think about that. I can't imagine any other retail environment where I would actually tolerate, on a regular basis, that level of busyness. No way. I see that much activity, and generally, I'm running for my Web browser so I can buy online and have things delivered.
Meanwhile, somehow the Apple employees know just the right way to break my attention to ask if I need help. It's like there are brain-scanning devices hidden in the walls and body posture algorithms running on Macs in back rooms that send invisible signals to Apple employees letting them know the right time to engage.
In San Francisco, I walked in with a vague sense that maybe I would buy a Power Support anti-glare screen protector for my iPhone 4 if they had one. My other protector was a mess and I was due for a new one, but I knew I wanted Power Support. The store had one. Nice. After I held the new iPad and marveled at the sharp text, I checked out the third-party products Apple deemed worthy of its shelves. When it was time to go, I took all of six steps toward the glass stairs before a guy asked me if I was ready to check out. He scanned my credit card with his modified iPhone, sent me the receipt via email, then asked if I wanted someone to install the screen protector for me.
This isn't groundbreaking because, after all, who hasn't seen some kiosk in a mall or airport where people will sell and install a smartphone screen cover for you while you wait? I said, "Yeah, that sounds good." (I suck at these installations.)
He led me to a crew of blue-shirted personal setup experts and a woman smiled at me. I asked her, "So are you the best?"
"I am," she said without hesitation. I handed over my iPhone and she disappeared through a hidden door into a back room to do the installation, no doubt some place relatively dust-free.
When she returned a few minutes later, my screen protector was on -- perfectly. It was like I had a whole new iPhone 4.
The point isn't that this is a wild experience or totally unexpected -- and yet it is. I got excellent personal attention for something as small as a $15 screen protector. And I left astoundingly happy. Instead of leaving me to mess up the application myself at the hotel, Apple took this as an opportunity to please.
They didn't know that I'm a die-hard Mac fan or that I'd helped other new Apple owners get what they needed from the Genius Bar. And the Genius Bar? Last year I walked in with a nearly three-year-old MacBook battery that was swelling, well out of warranty, and walked out with a new battery, courtesy of a Genius. He could have directed me to buy a new battery, but instead he slapped a new coat of glue on my relationship with Apple.
These are the kinds of stories I hear all the time. And one friend, who'd laughed at me when I told her we would take her iPhone with the fleck of debris inside the camera lens to an "Apple Genius,"also walked away happy.
Is Great Customer Service an Invention?
No. It's not. And like most inventions, is it truly new? Not really. I vaguely remember a Gateway Computer store in Colorado back in the previous century. Whatever happened there? I think the word "fail" shows up prominently somewhere, but I don't remember the details. And yet Jobs pushed through all conventional wisdom to build more than 300 very very expensive retail stores around the world. There's glass, new architectural techniques, and templates for amazing designs that are built around historical structures. Simply check out the complete Apple Retail Store list.
The flagship stores in New York, France and UK are simply amazing.
I can't wait to visit.