Shown at Apple, sold elsewhere.

Photograher: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

More 'Watch' Than 'Apple'

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
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A couple of weeks ago I stopped by the Grove, a Los Angeles mall best known for its music-playing fountain and a trolley that ferries tourists to the nearby food market. I wanted to check out the Apple Watch in what I thought was its natural environment – inside a huge store that drew shoppers and tourists to minimalist display tables.

I didn’t have a try-on appointment for an 18-karat gold Edition, or any model for that matter. I mostly wanted to watch the shoppers anyway. Would customers ooh and aah? How would Apple showcase its newest product?

About a dozen people hovered around each table. A customer in a T-shirt talked loudly about tech specs with an Apple employee, also in a T-shirt. Someone interrupted the shoptalk to say that the Edition model was outrageously expensive, to which the employee admitted that he had no idea who would shell out the $17,000 for it. He quickly diverted everyone’s attention to the $349 Sport model.

It’s a marvel to shrink a smartphone into a watch. But Pebble and Samsung got there first. What draws a crowd to the Apple store is the Apple brand. The shoppers who hovered around the watches were like those who checked out the nearby iPhones and computers. They cared about performance, apps and cool industrial design.

This is not Apple's full vision for the watch. The company so clearly wants it to be more than just another gadget. The whole marketing campaign and rollout were designed to appeal to shoppers who love high-end fashion. This isn’t just because Apple wants to appeal to rich fashionistas. It’s because rich fashionistas make us want things we didn’t know we wanted. That monologue from "The Devil Wears Prada" sums it up:

In 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent.... And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you.

 When pre-orders for the Apple Watch began a few weeks ago and customers faced longer-than-expected wait times, I wrote that scarcity was part of a luxury marketing strategy.  Fame has been artfully deployed too, with the watch turning up on the wrists of Beyoncé and Karl Lagerfeld as we all wait for ours. Remember: Even those hideous Juicy Couture tracksuits once flew off shelves because Paris Hilton wore them.

But no one at the Grove talked about whether Katy Perry or Pharrell Williams wore it better. No Genius Bar guy showed us how he coordinated the enormous chunk of glass and steel with “his look,” which you might call IT casual. Clearly it’s going to take some time before Beyoncé’s gold watch filters down into mass fashion and has us clamoring for the cheaper Sport watch or wearing Casual Corner-style knockoffs.

I think this is one of the reasons Apple is acknowledging that the Apple product experience can no longer be contained in the Apple store. Those stores have always signaled that you were there to worship the devices as they were. No modifications. That was for Samsung phones. Apple had created a one-size-fits-all design. The store echoed the ad campaigns for devices like the iPod, which turned people into colorful silhouettes, all knitted together by the homogeneity of the music player.

But as the company branches out from gadgets into products that cater to and express personal taste, it will need new ways to define what the Apple experience is.

When the Apple Watch was more widely available for purchase last week, you could walk in and buy it from high-end retailers like Colette in Paris, Dover Street Market in London, Isetan in Tokyo and Maxfield in Los Angeles. Apple stores still displayed the device but helped shoppers buy it online. The full retail experience was for a different crowd from the one that frequents the Grove.

Further signaling its shift, Apple is using video to allow representatives to work with shoppers at home. This is definitely not your typical call center. It's proof that Apple retail won’t be defined only by the Apple store and the company’s website.

The crowd at the Apple store I visited seemed to care little about the luxury accessory marketing tactics. That code was clearly not intended to reach a crowd that’s more Sport than Edition. But Apple wants to broaden its product line and its appeal. So it has to broaden the Apple experience. So it’s working to meet customers where they are – be it the Grove or Maxfield. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net