Retail Reboot: Apple

Gadgets and phones are a huge market online, but that hasn’t stopped Apple opening 13 stores in Australia since 2008. What makes its outlets so successful? Our Retail Reboot series continues with a venture into the world of suburban Mac lovers.

The image of enthusiasts queuing on launch day to buy a new iDevice has become such a familiar site on news broadcasts that it feels slightly odd to be reminded that the first Apple store in Australia opened in central Sydney a little over three years ago. A year after that, there were still only a handful in operation when I went on a brief whistle-stop tour of the first three local stores.

Since then, the model hasn’t really changed, and the multi-story Sydney CBD store remains something of an aberration in terms of local operations. The typical Australian Apple store takes up a large but not massive site in a suburban shopping mall. But that relative lack of evolution doesn’t mean people don’t get excited about them — witness the crowds at the most recent opening in Hornsby.

As regular Lifehacker readers will know, I’m not a heavy user of Apple technology, and I have rarely set foot in an Apple store since that 2009 tour (with one obvious exception being a visit to check out Mac keyboard shortcuts). So to remind myself of what the experience is like, I headed to the Doncaster store. Compared to touring around Masters, it was a speedy visit, as there’s a lot less floor space to cover. But the strategy is also a lot more evident.

What’s different?

Apple distinguishes itself from the majority of electronics retailers in three key ways:

  • A defined and limited product range. While there is hardware and software on sale from other providers, the vast majority of what’s on sale is from Apple. The store does what the name implies. That’s great if you’re already decided on what you want, or at least what brand (singular) you want.
  • A minimal design with not much stock on the floor. Apple stores don’t feel crowded. In part, that’s because they don’t sell that many different products, but it does make for a more relaxing environment.
  • Staff aplenty but minimal hassle. The one thing I really do like about Apple stores: there are plenty of people around to help if you want help, but if you want to just check out the gear in your own time (or randomly surf the Net), you don’t get constantly hassled. In retail environments, this is still pretty rare: you either get no-one available to help (Harvey Norman) or staff lurking co constantly (JB Hi-Fi).

Is this a model that other businesses could replicate? Not that easily in its entirety — very few companies manage such tight control over their margins, which is one reason Apple can have lots of staff and floor space. But any retailer could make its staff strike a better balance between helping and hassling.

(Not) What I don’t like

Since I’m not a buyer of Apple product other than the occasional iTunes card, my opinion on what I don’t like wouldn’t advance out understanding much (and would undoubtedly attract a lot of troll comments). So instead, I’m going to discuss something that struck me during the visit: Next door to the Apple Store, there’s a soon-to-open Nespresso Store.

Despite being in a different category, in many ways the Nespresso model is very similar to Apple: a small range of product in a hyper-designed environment, with an often-limited availability for some items and a premium branding approach, and a product which works best if you use it in exactly the way suggested by the manufacturer. Coffee purists don’t Nespresso, just as hard-core PC builders often don’t like Macs. But both have big and devoted fanbases.

Despite the lack of hassle, I don’t want to see this approach echoed in every store I visit — I personally prefer stores with a wider range of stock, less pretension and some chance of a discount. But to judge from the crowds in both stores, I might well be in a minority. That said, I can still buy coffee and computers in plenty of other places. Choice is handy.

Could you save money shopping here?

To be blunt: probably not. Apple virtually never has sales in its retail outlets. That doesn’t mean you can’t get Apple gear cheaply: there are occasional 10 per cent off sales in other chains, and specials on items towards the end of their life (older iPods, for example). But the experience isn’t about saving money for most people: it’s about convenience and advice.

Apple’s retail strategies work well with what are largely discretionary goods. But what happens in the more critical setting of a supermarket? In our final Retail Reboot instalment tomorrow, we’ll look at Coles “new look” store plan.

Apple Stores

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