Apple Stores: It’s time to upset the cart.

Red apples

Last week I succumbed to my usual neurosis and ordered the new iPhone. 

(iPhone 11 Pro Max, Space Grey, 256 GB, it’s glorious, thanks for asking.)

At this early point in the annual sales cycle, you’re unlikely to walk in to the Apple Store and get the exact model you want. 

Better to go online, order and pay for it, and then go in at a reserved time and pick up the phone. 

So, I ordered and set my reservation time was 7PM. I showed up ten minutes early and, after wandering around trying to figure out who would sign me in, located the correct iPad-wielding associate. 

The store was packed, so I settled in. It took 35 minutes for an associate to bring me a box I pre-paid for.

Then I left. 

As I stood there waiting (needlessly) I observed:

  • Customers wandering in, unsure of what to do or who to talk to. 

  • Annoyed customers waiting for new phones mingling with annoyed visitors who just wanted their Apple device fixed, because Apple mixes shoppers and Genius Bar tech support visitors together. 

  • Customers upset about their wait times, with no idea how much longer they had to wait. 

I didn’t see anyone enjoying their time in the store. No magic, just muddling. 

The Apple Store vibe isn’t what it used to be. Today the experience is less technology wonderland and more Department of Motor Vehicles. 

The Walmart experience

Have you ever pre-purchased something from Walmart? You know, Walmart, generally the most unpleasant shopping experience in American retail?

You order and pay for your item online. Wal-Mart emails you when it’s ready. 

Then you walk into the store and up to this Willy Wonka booth-looking thing. You swipe your credit card, and your item deposits itself right in front of you. 

Done. It’s a two or three minute experience. 

Order something for pickup from Apple, and, well, bring a good book. 

Overworked employees, when they can finally get to you, have to find and then walk items to you from the back room of the store, which, based on the time it takes to retrieve your item, is an area roughly the size of Brazil. 

Wal-Mart uses automation for a fast and simple experience. Apple uses sneakernet

The world’s largest consumer tech company doesn’t use the revolutionary device it created to streamline and personalize the shopping experience. Intead, it creates bottlenecks and inefficiency to irritate and delay the people trying to give Apple money. 

If only there was a device that could help

Apple needs to use its own technology to transform the store experience. 

I understand Apple wants its store experience to be transformational, not transactional. But today it’s just obstructive. The only thing transformed is your free time into wasted time. 

What to do? Well, here are three pretty straightforward ideas.

First: Create an Amazon Locker experience I can unlock with, oh, I don’t know ... an iPhone, maybe. Have my prepaid items locked and loaded for pickup at my designated time.

Second: Create some separation between Genius Bar visitors and customers. Yes, the Genius Bar is in the back of the store. But people waiting for service mill around, bouncing off people looking to purchase--perhaps--the very thing that other person has brought in because it’s broken.

Not a great look, and not a great experience. 

Third: Utilize iPhone messaging to personalize the experience. 

  • Apple, you know when I walk into the store. Your app tells me it knows I’m there. So if I have an appointment, say, “Hi Matt, please see Emily to check in for your appointment. Here is a picture of Emily,” so customers I have a clue where to go. 

    Better still: automatically check me in when I walk in. Again, your app knows I’m there, so check me in automatically.

  • Send me updates on my estimated wait time: “Hi Matt, just two people ahead of you and then we will be right with you.” 

  • Surprise me with something: “Hey Matt, thanks for waiting. Here’s $5 off of a case for your new iPhone if you’re so inclined.”

  • Then send me a thank you message after I walk out. 

Simple messaging, on the device you invented, can create clear expectations, clear instructions, and maybe even a little magic. 

The caveat and the good news

One thing, however, is not broken, and it’s important:

I have never had a bad experience with an associate. Not in Florida or California or any of the other Apple Stores I’ve visited. And the associates deal with a lot: upset and impatient customers, really basic or ill-informed questions (over and over again, I’m sure) heavy crowds, and chaotic conditions. 

Apple’s problems are all process, and not people. Process is a lot easier to fix. 

This isn’t the DMV

When you’re visiting the customer-facing, real-world manifestation of the Apple brand, you shouldn't feel like you’re renewing your license plate. 

Apple likes to say of its products, “It just works.” You know, like magic. 

The Apple Stores have become the exact opposite of that. The experience does not work, and has become a drag on the brand.