A change in Apple retail

Editor’s Note:This is a guest post by Joe Caiati. Joe works as an IT professional in New York City. He maintains a weblog called dot info and calls Twitter his second home.

Apple has gone through a cultural change. Yosemite and iOS 8’s tight integration was a large indicator of that. When Forstall and Browett were ousted, Apple promised an increase in collaboration throughout its teams. Many didn’t know exactly what that was going to be, but it’s become clear that Tim Cook wants less compartmentalization and more interactivity between all Apple channels — including retail.

I used to work in a flagship Apple Store in New York City as a Mac Genius. I started there during the Cook era and have seen the ways Apple corporate has changed their interactions with its retail employees. Many of my co-workers, who had been there longer than I, didn’t have much to say about Jobs and retail. He’d occasionally visit a store or two, but those visits were brief and he didn’t address employees in a manner that Cook has. There are some Apple retail positions that afford you the opportunity to spend time in Cupertino, but you are explicitly told not to interact with Apple’s top-staff unless they approach you. During my time at Apple, corporate came to us.

There’s enough stories out there to know that if you were able to meet, let alone have an encounter, with Steve Jobs then you were one of the lucky few. In one instance, Jobs asked someone I knew to pass him a fork at Apple’s Cafe Macs in Cupertino and that person will never forget it. That allure has carried over to Cook, but now that he has settled in as Apple’s CEO, the differences between him and Jobs have become more defined. Cook seems more comfortable with the press’ attention focused on him.

In Cook’s short time as CEO, he’s done a number of appearances for the media and Apple employees. His on-screen interviews with Brian Williams and Charlie Rose are among the many off-screen interviews he’s given to the press. He isn’t afraid of talking about himself either.

Cook has paid unannounced visits to the store I worked in more than once. One night in November 2012, he and Phil Schiller walked right through the front doors and started touring the building (my store had three floors). Little did we know, they were touring the NYC stores looking at shooting locations for Cook’s interview on Rock Center. I wasn’t working that evening — which bummed me out — but a few days later when they shot the interview, they decided to use my store for the sit down portion. I’m glad I was there because that was the day I met Tim Cook.

Instead of sneaking out the back entrance after the interview concluded, Cook was kind enough to walk back down the spiral staircase and throughout each floor. I remember my encounter with him vividly. I was in the back section of the first floor and I saw him walking down the staircase to leave. He then stopped to greet some employees and customers towards the entrance.

I flat-out ran over to him, kind of interrupted his conversation with a customer (oops) and said, “Tim!” He looked to his right, we shook hands and I said “It was an honor” to meet him in which he smiled and said something to the effect of “It’s so nice to me you.” in his slow southern accent. Minutes later, Katie Cotton shuffled him off to a black SUV parked outside. It was a small interaction, but one I’ll always remember.

Since then, Cook has gone on to do more employee meet and greets, but he hasn’t been the only one. Angela Ahrendts has paid visits around the world to retail stores. Weeks before I left Apple, she came into my store (she’s really tall in person.) Having her spend as much time in the retail environment is key. I’d wager Cook has been a big encourager of that. After the Browett debacle, Apple can not afford another leadership fault.

While Apple retail has been stronger than ever over the past years, there is a big challenge ahead. The stores keep getting busier and the Genius Bar wait times are getting longer. The introduction of a new product category — the Apple Watch — will require a fundamental change in their retail layout and processes.

You will most likely see some growing pains as the Apple Watch launches across retail stores. Handling how you are going sell, have people try-on and customize a (potentially) $10,000 watch will be a new initiative unlike any other of Apple’s previous products. The Genius Bar’s initial repair strategy for new products is to replace the device if it’s defective or damaged, but I’m curious to see how they will handle issues in the future. The repairability of the Apple Watch remains to be seen, but it would seem costly to replace gold watches entirely if something breaks.

Putting the Apple Watch aside, the retail operation — as a whole — could use an overhaul. The stores have always felt a bit awkward to navigate. Apple used to try to give visual cues like different colored shirts to identify employee positions, but now with everyone unified in blue, you have to just approach whoever is available to try to get help — and that person may not even be the right employee to assist you. I’ve seen that all-too-familiar look on customers faces who feel lost and frustrated because they have no clue how to purchase something or check-in for an appointment. A retail re-thinking would be welcomed.

Apple is facing a time where keeping their culture consistent throughout the company is paramount. Ahrendts has been communicating more often with the retail staff and Cook is making sure the divide between retail and corporate doesn’t segregate. Though, with more stores always on the horizon, their struggle will be making their retail employees feel valued — all fifty-thousand of them.

By next year this time, you may see a whole new side of Apple retail.