Apple’s (AAPL) glass-cube stores have become as familiar as Subway sandwich shops. But when Steve Jobs opened the first in 2001, the retail venture was expected to fail. “I give them two years before they’re turning out the lights on a very painful and expensive mistake,” David A. Goldstein, president of researcher Channel Marketing Corp, told BusinessWeek in an article titled “Sorry, Steve: Here’s Why Apple Stores Won’t Work.”
Apple has 423 stores, as of March, and it makes more money in sales per square foot—$4,551—than any other U.S.-based retailer, according to EMarketer RETAIL. The stores’ success has a lot to do with their design, a fact not lost on Apple, which has patented its distinctive store layout, glass cube, and floating staircase in the U.S. The company recently won permission to apply for trademark protection in the European Union.
I talked recently with 8’s Tim Kobe—the designer who worked closely with Jobs to create the computer store’s iconic look—about how Apple changed the retail landscape. From that conversation, five lessons emerged as to what businesses can learn from Apple’s then-outlandish example.
Prototype far, far away. Shortly after returning to Apple as chief executive officer in 1997, Jobs prototyped the retail concept away from the gaze of the U.S. press: He opened 34 outlets across Japan. “Those were shops inside big-box consumer electronics stores,” Kobe says. “Steve flew over and took a helicopter all around Japan to see the installations, and that was really the first trial of the retail.” If those outlets hadn’t passed muster, Jobs wouldn’t have had the confidence to bring the idea stateside and launch the inaugural store in McLean, Va.
Avoid established partners. Around the same time, Apple struck a deal to insert mini-stores in CompUSA and staff them with Apple-trained employees in an effort to boost flagging computer sales. Jobs quickly put the kibosh on the program. “Steve’s sense was that the CompUSAs were a dying business, and that he shouldn’t become connected with them.” He was right: The superstore chain was sold in 2007 and finally closed its doors in 2012.
The product is not the most important thing. When Apple opened its first store, it had thousands of square feet to fill with only four product lines. Computers occupied the front quarter of the showroom. The rest of the space was devoted to services (a kids’ area, a theater for educational programs, the soon-to-be-signature Genius Bar), software solutions (movies, music, photos), and additional electronics and accessories. “All these elements were new ways for people to interact with technology—to extend the ease-of-use analogy into a broader dimension rather than just the software interface,” Kobe says. Jobs knew from the outset that he could lure customers into an inviting environment with the promise of free Wi-Fi: “There are 36 computers on display on this floor,” he breathlessly announces in the video below. “Every single one of them is connected to the Internet.”
Obsess over the smallest details. Jobs notoriously sweated details—“down to the screw heads,” Kobe says. His drive for perfection drove people around him crazy, but it also brought out some of the best work from the designers around him. The stainless-steel wall panels that made their debut in the Stanford, Calif., store took three months to develop. “We were trying everything we could think of, and Steve kept rejecting it, rejecting it,” Kobe recalls. “So finally we decided to do the most impossible thing: Make a matte surface reflective.” Jobs loved it. “When I look at it historically,” the designer continues, “the idea of making something that someone couldn’t copy as well was at the heart of a lot of the material selections that ended up in the stores.”
Change it up. Apple stores didn’t always feature cantilevered shelving, gray sandstone floors, and mobile checkouts. Those are all part of an evolutionary process driven by Jobs’s obsessive efforts to improve the design, customer experience, and sales. Those rectilinear wooden tables didn’t appear until the second generation (or vintage, as the versions are known as internally); originally, the desktop and laptop computers sat on kidney-shaped white tables, which worked well for the candy-colored iMacs but not when the product line turned white. The designers then updated the display surfaces with a wood palette neutral enough for any future iteration.
Kobe, who is still on retainer with Apple, fears that the recent push to trademark the store design marks a fundamental shift from setting standards, as Jobs did, to looking backward. “When you start defending something so hard, it reads like there’s not a whole lot more in the pipeline, whether that’s the case or not,” he says.