What’s Wrong with Apple Stores?

Apple Store

In a recent post about Microsoft’s new retail initiative, I suggested that that there are aspects of Apples customer experience that could be improved.  Several readers responded, asked for more specifics thoughts.

Let me start by saying that Apple has the best dollars per square foot metrics in all of retail.  They don’t need to apologize about their stores to anyone.  Further, there are many elements of their experience that I love,  including their signature architecture, genius bar, useful fact tags, category signage with decision tree suggestions, window displays and wireless CRM.

That being said, here are some areas that could be improved…

Accessory shopping.

Apple Store AccessoriesApple does a great job merchandising their own product (and editing their assortment) but their merchandising for third party product is pretty weak.  First the adjacencies are very poor(accessories are merchandised far from the primary product).  Once you get to the accessories display, the signage and wayfinding is non-existent.  Cases for iPhone, iPhone 3G, iTouch 1.0, and iTouch 2.0 all look alike, and Apple leaves shoppers trying to find the small print on the individual SKU’s packaging to tell which are which (and of course the packaging has no consistent standards across brands).  Once you find something you might want to buy, you can’t try it!  Am I really supposed to buy $400 headphones without auditioning them?  How good is this printer?  Which Bluetooth car speaker is the loudest?  What features should I care about in this category (you teach me exactly how to shop for a laptop but give me no advice on buying external storage for example).


Where do I go to  pay?

The wireless POS system apple uses is great, but it can be really confusing to figure out how to buy something.  Not every employee has a terminal, some have a cash drawer, some don’t.  Some can take gift cards, some can’t.  Do I just line up behind any name badge and wait until my turn to learn if they are a walking cash register or not?!?  Is this the line to pay or for the Genius bar?   Watch people shop these stores, and you’ll see lots of prospective shoppers bounce around trying to buy (and in some cases, you’ll watch them give up and walk-out).

Nothing to discover.

I can visit a Best Buy store every week, and each time find some new product that wasn’t there the week before.   Apple’s assortment is much more static and predictable.  It’s very rare for me to walk into an Apple Store and accidentally discover some exciting new product.  I need a reason to visit your stores more frequently.


Come on Apple, you’re a leading technology company, but I can’t check the inventory of my local store online?  I can’t pay with my iTunes account using my iPhone in the store?  I can’t build a wishlist anywhere.  Can I use the website to reprint a receipt from the store?  Separate operations for online and physical stores is so last century.

Apple stores are an exclusive club, and I’m not a member.

These stores really are a victim of their own success.  Zealous Apple customers  love to “hang out” in the store and talk to employees, which is great, but new customers have to interrupt the ad-hoc user group to get help.   There’s a whole Apple vocabulary that I don’t know.  The store culture is just not inviting to the uninitiated.  If you don’t believe me, try sending your Mom into the store, and see how long it takes her before she has the courage to engage an employee.


As an investor, I also worry that the completely labor dependent sales assisted environment is scalable.  What would your stores have to look like if you ever to enjoy 20% – 30% of the personal computer marketshare?  Could you keep hiring the quality of people you rely on now?  You’re customer experience doesn’t seem to translate very well from 200 Apple stores, to 800 Best Buy stores for example.

Retailing is really hard, and I can easily imagine the internal debates about the compromises involved in fixing any of the above.  I know it’s not fun to get criticism, but looking at your stores through critical eyes is how you get better.  I first hired Envirosell to study one of my stores in 1994, now they’ve been tearing apart my customer experiences for over 15 years.  I hate the experience, but I keep going back because they make me better.  Apple does a great job, but you’ve got to keep innovating or someone will do it for you!


  1. The POS thing is confusing. I usually have to make my way to the end of the Genius Bar so I can get an education discount (as small as it is these days) on Apple products that still have them.

    I agree that the accessories section is pretty packed on the walls. It is hard to tell if something new has shown up. But they are going for a uniform look that would be ruined if you had “new/improved” sticker starbursts on the products hanging of the wall.

    As far as the “newbie” service thing goes I think my local Apple Store (West Des Moines, IA) does a great job of homing in on people that need help. I also see them nicely break off conversations with people that just want to shoot the bull when they see other customers in need of assistance. In fact the greeter pretty much leads the any customer to an Apple Store employee for the hand-off. Even better if that employee doesn’t know they find someone who does know whatever it is you need to know.

    Maybe the smaller store Apple employees have a better “bedside manner”, but in Boston last summer I felt very well served the two times I visited while on vacation. Oddly, as big as the Apple Store was I didn’t see that they had any more third party products to show. So maybe accessories are just not their thing.

  2. Absolutely dead on!!!! Your have hit the nail square on the head. I went to the Apple Store on this past weekend and I felt as though I was in a refrigerator. I could have walked around and looked until my tongue fell out. Oh, one other thing – I don’t type (keyboard) standing up. I have no idea how a keyboard on any new Mac feels because you can only experience them from the standing position. Would a chair or stool be out of order??? Perhaps they could be tucked under the high tables along the walls.

    My feeling when returning to the Apple Store — “Nothing new here, move along”.

  3. Interesting and thoughtful points. Shopping accessories is painful but shouldn’t be, considering the margins Apple makes. There is some confusion over where to go to pay, though Apple store associates are usually quick to help someone who looks in need. Usually. I don’t go to the stores as often these days because there’s not much that’s new and too many newbies stand around asking questions. And, you’re right about Apple’s need to extend the buying process– let me shop online and show up at the local store to pick up what I want. Let me go to the store and pay via my iTunes account, Apple. As to scaling the store and their pack of associates, it’s likely that, as more stores open and closer together, each store would have somewhat fewer employes, revenue per square foot, etc. What a rough problem to have.

  4. I am a retailer (not electronics) and I think your criticism is right on. The accessory and the where do I pay problem is particularly accurate. The object of retailing is to make it easy on the customer to give you their money! On the other hand, Apple’s level of customer service, customer training and support is unequaled.

  5. I think you raise some interesting points, but many of which are not really relevant to the way Apple does business(at least in their mind). You can look at what Apple does in one of two ways: Apple is a control freak and likes to maintain control over everything or Apple has a business plan/model to make a lot of money and it is working so why should they change it.

  6. I was in an Apple store recently… Houston area… and it seemed run down and several items were not working or defective. I asked a salesman if it was the player or headphones. They offered to take one out of a box so that i could hear the full sound. But they didn’t have any. The salesman was nice and courteous… but things in an Apple store should work. Anything defective should be taken off the shelf and replaced. It just felt like the customer experience is eroding… especially in some of the older stores.


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