Have you been in an Apple Retail Store recently? I was just in one yesterday, and the experience made me seriously question whether adding “fashion advice” to the list of specialties Apple Stores offer is a good idea. It also made me wonder if Apple’s customer service advantage is starting to fade, as it was a less than great experience.
Let’s start with my experience yesterday, and then we’ll get into why that makes me concerned about the Apple Watch.
Sarah has an iPad and an iPhone, and both her Lightning cables stopped working. There’s no obvious damage, they barely leave their designated plugs, but they just don’t work anymore. Before we headed to Amazon to pick up new ones, we figured we would swing by the Apple Store and see if there was any chance that they would be able to replace the cords. We knew it was a long shot but it did seem odd that two out of three cords in our house just stopped working completely. We walked in and managed to find an employee within a few minutes. She was quite friendly, and we explained up front that we were pretty sure the devices were out of warranty, but we were concerned there was something electrically wrong with the cords.
The employee grabbed a Genius Bar colleague, who told us we could be seen about our cords in an hour and a half, or we could come back tomorrow afternoon. Sarah asked if we could just leave the cords with them and they could tell us if it was in fact an issue with the cords, and they said we had to personally bring the cords at our appointed time, along with the serial numbers of the devices the cords belonged to. It seemed like an awful lot of bureaucracy for a few charging cords, so we just left … and we ordered new cords from Amazon.
What surprised me here was how rigidly defined the Apple Store employees were. The Specialist couldn’t help us, and the Genius Bar greeter wouldn’t do anything besides make an appointment. Even more surprising, the Specialist just left us with the Genius Bar and didn’t even offer to sell us a new cord, which seems like basic retail sales 101. I can’t say that I would have been thrilled to fork over $19 for a new cord, but it would have been nice for someone to say “Hey, we can sell you a cord so you aren’t left charger-less until we can squeeze you in on Sunday morning.” Considering the reviews on Apple.com about Lightning cables, they must know the damn things break if you squint too hard at them, so why not try to sell us one we clearly needed? The entire interaction left us with a really bad taste in our mouths about Apple Stores. I used to point out to people that the advantage of an Apple device was that you could walk into a store, and a real person who knew and likes the products could help you. I shouldn’t feel like going to the Apple Store is akin to going to the DMV, but that’s how yesterday’s experience felt.
And all this leads into my concerns about what the Apple Watch launch will do to Apple retail stores. They’re going to be offering appointments for prospective watch buyers (15 minutes for the unwashed masses, 30 minutes if you have the discerning taste to spend $10,000+ on a watch), and employees will be offering advice and guidance if you’re on the fence about what style you might like. It sounds great in theory, but in reality I think that if Apple isn’t careful they may have stores and employees falling into two very typical and damaging retail sales traps.
On the one hand, you’re going to have Apple employees who were hired because they know how to sell computers and talk Mac software. These may not be employees who are going to be thrilled about discussing the finer points of pink versus blue sports straps, nor will they have a strong opinion on stainless steel links versus milanese loops. We’ve all had experiences with apathetic salespeople (like the lady who didn’t even attempt to sell us a cord yesterday), and even good salespeople can be apathetic or disinterested if they don’t like their jobs. I once fired someone when I worked in retail for, among other insubordinations, flat-out telling a customer he wouldn’t help her find a CD because he only liked working with books. I can almost guarantee there are a few employees in Apple Stores right now who are already grumbling that this isn’t what they signed up for, and that’s going to make for an unpleasant sales experience for a few watch buyers.
Then there’s the flip side, which is that a little bit of upselling leads to a lot of excess margin. Jumping across different band styles for the watch can lead to a 20, 30, or 40% increase in sales price. True, employees don’t work on commissions, but Apple is going to want to see ongoing sales of the watches, and managers and employees are going to be judged and motivated by sales. Again, it’s not hard to imagine some stores are going to push a bit harder for sales targets and that means a harder sell on those high margin bands. The Apple Store isn’t typically a place where you expect a high pressure sale, but then again, the Apple Store has never offered this kind of fashion upsell opportunity before either. And I want to make it clear, I don’t see Apple as a company condoning this — I just think it’s nearly impossible when you push for high sales and offer an easy way to juice your numbers with expensive accessorizing that your employees won’t try to push the expensive choice.
I might be a little bit cynical after our unpleasant experience yesterday at Apple, but it really does feel like the old Apple Store is gone. It isn’t as friendly as it used to be, and the camaraderie of “hey, we’re all Apple fans here” seems to have faded. Sure, the employees were all polite, but they just went through the motions. As a point of contrast, we happened to walk through the Microsoft store right before the Apple Store (my toddler LOVES the bright colors in the Microsoft Store), and the employee there had a more genuine and friendly connection with us in a moment of browsing than the Apple Store employees did, despite our longer interactions. And this wasn’t the first time it’s felt so cold at an Apple Retail Store. Hopefully things change, but even if I wanted an Apple Watch I wouldn’t be turning to my not-so-friendly neighborhood Apple Store for it!