How Apple stores changed for the worse, according to a former employee

Apple stores are still held up to be the gold standard of tech retailing. But, says one former employee, they're just not what they used to be.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Changing, but not in a good way?

Image: Asha Barbaschow/ZDNet

Nothing stays the same for as long as we'd like it to.

Time -- and its evil leech, money -- can warp things beyond recognition.

When it comes to Apple stores, they've long been regarded as a fundamental pillar of the Apple experience.

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Malls still beg for an Apple store to open, because it changes the tone of the neighborhood.

Apple stores have, though, themselves changed. Yes, there are still the glorious flagship stores, monuments to understated taste and an overabundance of noise.

The more regular stores, though, are just that -- regular.

From this consumer's point of view, there seem to have been few meaningful innovations. The last, perhaps, involved the disappearance of the physical Genius Bar.

A departed Apple store manager offered me his inside view of the ups, the downs and the slight disappointments of a long period of Apple history.

There were, he said, three eras.

"In my opinion, the golden age of Apple retail was during Ron Johnson's tenure," he told me. There was explosive growth and Apple Stores were truly unique and innovative in the retail space."

Johnson subsequently went on to become CEO of JC Penney, a tenure that was garlanded by as much success as the UK's government's in managing Brexit.

The former Apple store manager, though, told me: "Apple's retail mandate truly was to just do whatever we had to in order to delight a customer. The philosophy was that our products were so good and so innovative that they would literally fly off the shelves and the people's collective wallets would open themselves up to us."

I think that's what they call confidence. Or, perhaps, revolutionary magic.

The result, said the manager, was a retailing Nirvana: "We could take all sorts of discretionary action to make people happy. You broke your Mac and it's out of warranty? A manager could take care of that for you. Your brand new iPod Classic got stolen? A manager could heavily discount a replacement purchase."

Some of that still occurs, as I recently described.

Once Johnson left, however, there was the torment of John Browett.

"These were the darker Middle Ages," said my source. "It was the first and, as far as I know, only time that Apple actually laid off retail employees, tightened up available hours and made its priority driving revenue rather than making the customer happy."

Browett lasted slightly longer than the average flu.

In came Angela Ahrendts, revered in the fashion world. It seemed that she was having an effect on the stores. She wanted them to become town squares, though how this might lessen the din in the store or improve the retail experience was somewhat unclear.

Though it seems likely that Ahrendts quit, she wasn't universally adored.

My source explained: "Angela Ahrendts was supposed to be the Renaissance that never quite was. We were getting conflicting direction on a semi-regular basis and a lot of new initiatives on what seemed like a weekly basis. Nothing seemed to quite stick."

Worse, said the former Apple store manager, new, more stringent disciplines were being imposed: "Sales traffic and volumes were dipping, and yet our sales targets continued to rise. You can imagine the pressure this would put on store leadership. Suddenly, we were being tracked based on how many 'exceptions' we were making for customers -- either a discretionary discount or waiving of a repair fee or cost."

It also, he said, affected the hours store employees worked: "Where previously employees could stay well past their scheduled shift if it meant delighting a customer, they were suddenly now ushered to clock out and leave."

How much of a renaissance can there now be with Cupertino's head of HR, Deirdre O'Brien, seemingly thrust impromptu into the role of running the Apple stores?

My source isn't optimistic.

"Apple switched course from being a true disruptor and innovator in the retail space to being a little bit more like everyone else," said my source. "Maybe this was inevitable, maybe it wasn't. Maybe it has just as much to do with a perceived stagnation of product innovation and development as it does with the realities of operating a retail empire."

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He left, believing that he'd seen the good times and there could now only be something far less good.

Perhaps he'd stayed there for too long. It's hard, though, to imagine what could now be done with spaces that have become so characteristic and, indeed, familiar. Especially with so many more product lines to sell.

It would take a monumental commitment for Apple to now entirely re-imagine its retail environment.

Perhaps, in days when there were fewer products and fewer product lines, time could be spent on retail innovation.

Now, it's reasonable to fear that more traditional retail principles will prevail.

Said my source: "My departure had everything to do with a feeling that the magic had gone."

Oh the magic always goes, sooner or later.

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