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


    So proofreading is too hard now?

    IMHO Apple stores aren't drastically different to any other brand concept stores. Sony's "Sony Central" concept stores come to mind. The visual layout is different, but the idea is the same: trying to show off the brand's products in the best light possible, with well-trained staff and plenty of opportunity to demo the tech in a way that's relevant to the user.

    The concept store idea is not new and Apple isn't doing it very differently to other brands.

      However the Sony Centre (at least in Adelaide) is populated by morons (when I was seeking help with a Sony eReader that I bought from that very store the assistant asked "is that a kindle? we don't sell those"). They fail Angus' third test of staff aplenty that are useful if you need them

        In my experience the same can be said about the adelaide apple store. I'm sick of retail (having worked in retail for years), you never get correct information and if you've read more than one review on a product you usually know more than the moron trying to sell the thing to you.

          Apple doesn't have a store in Adelaide - it's a licensed retailer.

        Management is more to be blamed than the floor employees. They don't get training. I consider them morons when they behave that way. A lot of floor employees lack customer service knowledge, and can be rude and dismissive.

    There isn't any competitive market for apple products because the mark-up between cost price and retail price is so little. If apple wasn't in fashion at the moment, their stores would go out of business overnight.

      I'm interested to see what happens to the Hornsby store. I don't think any other Apple Store has been this close to a JB HiFi before. Those guys are all about the add-ons, so you can browse all you like at the Apple Store and then get the JB salesman to eat into margin to include a case or software, no problem.

        There is a JB store in the same shopping centre as the Doncaster Apple Store. Just a short walk away, one level down.

        Also you can haggle the price down at the Apple Store. As an employee of a certain retail chain, I get 5% staff discount. When I bought my macbook pro, rather than buying it from somewhere I can use my staff discount, I instead went to the Apple store. There I asked if they could match my staff discount, and they did no problems and no questions asked.

        The Apple Store at Robina Town Centre is about a 500m walk from JB Hi-Fi (it's a pretty large shopping centre for the Gold Coast lol) when my friend got her iPad we went to Apple they didn't have what she wanted in stock, we went to JB they had 2 left, and they beat the price by 90 bucks including a sim card for 30. Which was awesome.

        in canberra, there is an apple resaler (not a full fledged apple store) directly across from a JB-hifi. (20 meters at most)

      But, they are doing it more successfully. I can think of no other company that has the returns per sq/m that Apple has.

        Well i'm sure the "cost price" for apple owned retail stores is lower, therefore making quite a good profit.

        It cost apple over a million dollars to replace the broken glass in front of their Sydney store, so the money is coming from somewhere.


    That's the Doncaster store at the top of the post!

    They won't do add-on deals but Apple stores will normally price match the 10 percent sales, useful if an Apple store is closer than a dse or jb

    Apple is a religious cult.

    I am half-serious about that statement. Look at the way the staff act, all that clapping and standing around in circles and all the religious-cult-like activity that goes on. Then all that stuff with the isolated Apple HQ/Campus that was/is being designed. Think of all the fanbois who will spend twice what the actual hardware is worth and so on and so forth.

    It's obsession.. it's fanatical.. it's cultism.

    The Apple stores are like their churches.

    I know.. crazy right..?

    But there is some truth to the above, in an abstract way.

      Well last night on Gruen Nation they said that 'scientists have found that the same brain signals appear when Apple Fanboys look at Steve Jobs, as when Christians see pictures of Jesus'

        Pdfft, as if Jesus launched any new wonder gadgets...

    I went and try to talk to someone about getting my phone three weeks ago at the penrith store, booked an appointment, turned up told an employee that I was there for that appointment, was seated and subsequently waited for 30 minutes after the appointment time only to still wait to talk to someone about how much it would cost for a replacement on my screen.

    After the half hour came my friends and i wondered how they could still be in business? As a result of waiting so long i decided best just to buy a new phone. Samsung or HTC.

    That's hilarious. One of my colleagues is in the photo.

    PS Thanks for letting me know that Nespresso is opening in Doncaster!

    Yes, but unlike Christians, Apple Fanboys KNOW Steve Jobs was real.

      Yes but if he rises again i will treat him like a zombie threat ...

    Last year the designer of Apples retail experience presented in Sydney: Tim Harrison
    It was interesting to hear about the amazing amount of work and concept testing that went into achieving this result.

    Apple users don't buy Nespresso, they buy expensive, shiny metal machines they can't use properly.

    And the same goes for their coffee machines.

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