Who doesn't love going to the Apple Store?
Well, me, for one.
Sure, I've waited in line at an Apple Store opening--I got a t-shirt!--and I've also waited in line for the special holiday sale at an Apple Store--I got Mac-themed magnetic poetry!--but instead, I now just wait for the urge to visit an Apple Store to pass. I'm still a fan of what Apple makes, but the retail experience has become less akin to shopping at a high-end boutique and more like going to Walmart (albeit, a well-designed Walmart).
All stores are not created equal
My first visit to an Apple Store was revelatory. Not only were all of Apple's products available for purchase, along with lots of Mac software and accesories, but all the machines were actually in working order and the staff knew what they were talking about. For some of you who have only known a world populated by Apple Stores, this excitment might seem strange, but there was a dark time before these retail oases opened.
My previous experiences with Apple products in a retail environment all dealt with the store-within-a-store concept that Apple piloted with CompUSA (a chain that, shockingly, is no longer in business).
For those of you who might not have had the opportunity to visit a CompUSA Apple "store," allow me to paint a word picture: Think of the opposite of an Apple Store and you've pretty much got it. The CompUSA Apple stores were tucked away in far corners, requiring you to walk past racks and racks full of PC software. (Yes, kids, there was a time when you had go to a store to buy software on a shiny disc. Then you would take it home and slide it into your computer using an arcane device called a CD-ROM drive.)
Once there, you couldn't help but notice that the fluorescent lights in the Apple section seemed to either be flickering or non-functional. Perhaps this was intentional, since all the Macs on display were usually in some state of distress. I spent many a visit to the CompUSA in White Plains, NY fixing Macs and answering random customers' Mac questions.
That's what made me fall in love with the Apple Store in the first place, and why I knew it totally made sense for Apple to control its own retail destiny. And this strategy has obviously been a success, since Apple makes more per square foot of store than any other retailer, including high-end stores like Tiffany and Nordstrom. Sadly, this wild success is the very reason I now dread going into an Apple Store.
Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded
Devoid of customers, your typical Apple Store is a temple of commerce, lovingly tended by a loyal band of retail employees. But when was the last time you experienced an Apple Store that wasn't packed to the gills with people? Of course, as a company, this is exactly what you want to happen in your store: lots of people coming in to check out your wares. However, a crowded Apple Store (i.e. almost every Apple Store during retail hours) isn't a pleasant place to be if you're on a mission to buy something or have a Genius fix your ailing Mac.
People of all kinds are camped out at the demo machines, doing everything from checking Facebook to filming, editing, and posting videos of themselves rocking out to some sweet tunes. Interested in actually, you know, trying out a machine before you buy one? You'll often have to wait.
Speaking of waiting, you'll have to do that fairly often at the Genius Bar, even if you have an appointment. Without a doubt the Geniuses are great at what they do, and the idea of seeing an actual human for tech support is fantastic.
In the early days of Apple Stores, you could just walk up to a Genius Bar, chat with someone, and have them fix your problem. You might even see a Genius pick up the red phone to Cupertino for a particularly tough problem (the red phones are a thing of the past). Success strikes again: You're now lucky to get to see a Genius on time, even if you've made an appointment in advance. Luckily for Apple, the Geniuses are so good at their jobs that they can usually turn a slightly aggravated customer with an ailing Mac/iPhone/iPad into a happy Apple customer--even if they've had to wait past their assigned time.
Shut up and take my money
By now you've probably figured out that most of my problems with the Apple Store can be traced to a general distaste for my fellow man. Apple can't fix that, but it can address the one thing that totally drives me crazy about the Apple Store: paying for stuff.
In case you've never been to a store and bought an item, here's how it usually goes down: You select your item (perhaps a Supernatural novel, based on the hit TV show of the same name), stand in the clearly defined check-out line for a varying amount of time, and hand the item to a cashier. That person in turn rings you up, collects the needed money, and hands you the item in a branded bag of some sort. Simple.
Given the crazy amount of foot traffic Apple stores get, someone decided that the designated cash registers had to go. Now any Apple Store employee on the store floor can check you out (plus there's an app for that). It's an amazing idea--in theory.
Here's the thing, though: All the Apple Store employees are overwhelmed helping the myriad folks browsing and asking questions. When I walk in with a mission to purchase a Lighting cable, I must push my way through the crowds to the corner of the store and grab the cable. Now the fun begins: I need to track down an Apple store employee who isn't engaged with a customer. In the past I've actually abandoned the whole thing and left the store without buying the cable. My ever-clever wife has come up with a solution for this problem though: She simply raises her hand. This is surprisingly effective in summoning an Apple Store employee over the general hubbub of the store.
The jerk store called and they're all out of McNulty
As I said at the beginning of this article, the Apple stores are making an insane amount of money for Apple. At this point, Apple could open a store inside an old orange crate and sell hundreds of iPhones a day--but isn't "the experience" part of what Apple sells us? The experience of going to an Apple Store is no longer a pleasant one; it's now more of a chore. I just want to grab that iPad and get the heck out of there so I can give Apple even more of my money in the comfort of my own home.
If Apple were to hire me as its next retail chief (which it really shouldn't), I'd do a couple of things differently:
Hire more staff for the most popular stores. I know Apple Stores are already well staffed, but they need more Geniuses and more floor staff to handle these crowds.
Impose a 30-minute limit on usage of the demo machines. If you don't know whether you're going to buy that MacBook Pro after 30 minutes, it might be time to consider an iPad mini.
Add an obvious place for people to pay for purchases. This would be in addition to having every floor staff person available to check people out (and letting people check themselves out for certain items).
With those three small--and granted, expensive--changes I would once again become a devoted Apple Store visitor. I won't fix the demo Macs though. I promise.