Q&A: John Edson, President of Lunar

The president of design firm Lunar and the author of a forthcoming book on Apple-inspired design strategies talks to SmartPlanet about retail tactics that any company can borrow from Apple Stores.

'Tis the season...to be spending a lot of time at the mall, purchasing holiday gifts. One retail success story that numerous companies would love to emulate is that of Apple Stores. A recent Bloomberg article cited a report from Piper Jaffray analysts that Apple Stores sold iPads at the rate of 14.8 units an hour on Black Friday this year, an increase from the rate of 8.8 iPads per hour at Apple Stores in 2010--a growth rate that was higher than that of all Black Friday sales in general.

Of course, not every retailer is Apple, and not every company makes a blockbuster product like an iPad. But to figure out what specific innovation lessons that any retailer can learn from Apple, I turned to John Edson, president of the design firm Lunar, whose client list includes Apple--as well as Google, Intel, Nike, and numerous other leading companies. Edson, a lecturer on design at Stanford University, is currently writing the forthcoming book Design Like Apple: Ten Principles for Creating Insanely Great Products, Services and Experiences, due out next summer from publisher John Wiley and Sons. Here's our exchange:

SmartPlanet: What are the most exciting retail concepts you've noted recently--and are they all practiced at Apple Stores?

Technology has been trying to move into the retail space, promising to increase efficiency or even make for a better and cooler customer experience. How long have we been hearing about "contactless payment" systems--wireless technology at the grocery checkout that can sense everything we have in our carts at once to speed us out of the store?

We are definitely starting to see some of these future payment visions come to life. Most people have encountered a self-checkout system, and electronic wallets are finally available on some cell phones and at some retailers, especially in my homeland, Silicon Valley.

These are inevitable improvements to streamline the payment process. Apple has done this best.

Their enormous, friendly and knowledgeable sales team is armed with portable scanners. They can help you pick out the right iPhone case, and then whisk you out of the store with your purchase. "Do you want me to email you your receipt?" Absolutely! No waiting in line, because, again, it's all about the product, and once you have your product, you should go start using it immediately.

SP: What role does store design play in terms of Apple's influence on business innovation?

The most promising and successful retail design innovations can all be found at the Apple Store. When Apple launched their retail stores a decade ago, I thought they were nuts. Gateway Computers had just about sunk their ship by opening retail stores, and Apple had definitely turned their ship with the successful iMac, but they were still in a somewhat frail position to make such a big bet. Their vision has become an enormous success.

The primary source for their success is that they don't treat the store as merely a place to buy computers. You can buy computers online. But the store is the beautiful embodiment of the Apple brand and a wonderland where consumers can experience products, get help and even attend classes and other events. Apple recognizes that the future of retail resides in leveraging place, people and product in a way that cannot be replicated by competitors, including their own online store. And of course, unlike the Gateway experience, you can actually walk out of an Apple Store with a computer; Gateway stores were merely places you could go to order a computer.

The genius behind the Genius Bar is that consumers are lured to the store for free assistance with their Apple stuff, and in the process, they are exposed to all the wonderful new products, accessories and services that Apple offers. Not only that, but through the Geniuses, Apple gets one-to-one access to their customers, creating the perfect sales situation, especially for technology products that many customers find confusing.  Who better to recommend the right product than a "Genius" in the softest of sells in retail?

Apple stores maximize the best things about a store and minimize the minutiae. The stores are organized like a museum where you can touch the exhibits. They have lots of working units on display to get people experiencing their products firsthand. After all, it's all about the products.

SP: Can you suggest actual innovation exercises that companies can engage in to improve their retail design strategies?

There are at least two exercises for other retailers to consider based on lessons from Apple's--and other innovative retailers'--stores.

First, they should ask themselves how can their stores become wonderful playgrounds for the products they are selling while simplifying the actual purchase process? How can they celebrate the products themselves in an enticing way that gives consumers the feeling of a test drive? Lots of retailers are doing this well, perhaps most notably Ikea, which forces consumers through a scripted experience of their products staged in pseudo home environments. You can’t even purchase Ikea products online.

The second exercise could be more instructive for finding future retail innovations. The second question is what would their stores be like without any of their product available in them? People are increasingly comfortable with buying stuff online, so what do they have in their stores that would bring customers by?  What's their Genius Bar? It's hard to find a book store these days that doesn't have a coffee counter, for instance. A beautiful store, a free experience, or a how-to class are all elements that you cannot get online.

Related on SmartPlanet:

Why the future of retail takes so long to arrive

Why your office is so unbearable: hint, it's the design

Image: Lunar

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com