Let’s just admit it: Apple, one of the coolest companies in the world, also is the best retailer on the planet. This is especially impressive given what Apple’s company-owned stores sell: high-tech gadgets that often befuddle “the rest of us.”
Great service, fiendish efficiency and a cultish devotion to its wares spark higher sales for Apple. One example: The other day I made a quick fly-by to an Apple store in the Big Apple, on 14th Street at Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. It started as a search for a simple $29 software upgrade.
I didn’t leave until three hours later—after spending $1,053.88. And yet, I was happy with the whole experience. How could this be?
I’ll reveal that in a moment, but first let’s zoom out to the panorama shot:
In some ways Apple stores started out of necessity. In 2001 retailers gave short-shrift to Apple and its declining market share, focusing instead on utilitarian “Wintel” systems based on Microsoft Windows software and Intel microprocessors and sold under Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and other brand names.
Apple opened its first two retail stores in May of that year, in Glendale, Calif. and Tysons Corner, Va. It had 30 stores 12 months later. It now has 273 outlets, including four new stores that just opened over the past weekend. A total 217 stores are open in the U.S., plus 22 in Great Britain, 14 in Canada, seven in Japan, a smattering across Europe and even one outpost in Beijing. (Build a few more behind the Great Wall, guys.)
The stores act as a luminous, three-dimensional ad for Apple, a kind of DisneyWorld meets Tron. To be inside one is to be immersed in an all-Apple world, filled with Apple-lovers on both sides of the sales counter. But the retail chain churns a hefty amount of revenue, as well, sparking $1.5 billion or 18% of sales last quarter.
The Apple corps’s key differentiator: great customer service, an elusive elixir in desperately short supply at retailers of all stripes. More than half the store employees are devoted to after-sale service, an Apple spokesman says. Free troubleshooting advice is offered at the humbly named Genius Bar in every store (though I did have to wait two days for an appointment).