With the appointment of a new executive, Apple is set to once again redefine the retail experience.
Apple's new senior vice president of retail, former Burberry chief executive officer Angela Ahrendts, will be responsible for further “enriching the consumer experience on and offline.”
Ahrendts will take the reigns from Ron Johnson, who helped the late Steve Jobs pioneer the first Apple retail stores and the Genius Bar, a space within Apple stores that offer face-to-face technical support. The first Apple store was opened in Virginia in May 2001, but its familiar trademark store design was first introduced in Pasadena, California.
Upon opening, the stores exceeded a billion dollars in annual sales within two years and their success has only grown from there. In late 2012, research firm Retail Sails reported Apple sold an enviable $6,050 per square metre of retail space in the US, doubling Tiffany & Co’s $3,017 in the country. In October of last year, the company posted quarterly revenue of $3.75 billion and quarterly net profit of $7.5 billion.
Apple’s store concept took retail interiors to a new level, revealing a futuristic design that moved beyond product placement and traditional point of sale to offer a store that created a community. This was achieved through the strategic spatial design, colours and simple features that emulated the company’s pioneering technology.
While Apple’s iconic store design has revolutionised retail for the technology industry, in recent months many critics have referred to the stores as tired and no longer innovative.
In a case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, strikingly similar store designs have been unveiled in recent years by the company's closest competitors, Samsung and Microsoft, placing increased pressure on Apple to reconsider its retail interiors.
This is where Ahrendts comes in.
Ahrednts joined Burberry in 2006 and the retail strategies implemented during her tenure are credited with contributing to the company’s seven-year growth, which has seen profits more than double since 2007.
Ahrendts has always been a supporter of technology and cultural brand evolution, using Apple as her muse rather than close luxury house competitors.
“If I look to any company as a model, it’s Apple,” she told The Wall Street Journal in 2010. “They’re a brilliant design company working to create a lifestyle, and that’s the way I see us.”
Like Apple, Ahrendts took to the technological world while with Burberry, creating a back-end system with Salesforce and SAP while forecasting social media opportunities, smartphone and mobile device accessibility in what she said was a bid to “(blur) the boundaries of the physical and digital retail experience.”
For example, in an interview with Jeff Chu from Fast Company, Ahrendts referred to the 121 Regent Street Store in London unveiled late last year as “the future of retail.”
“It felt like you were walking into the website, you were walking into that screen,” Ahrendts said of the store, which features a centre screen and a hydraulic stage which hosts concerts for Burberry Acoustic in-store before they’re streamed live.
Ahrendts’ technological and product focus is comparable to the way Apple’s first stores sparked a new retail culture.
Tim Kobe’s design firm Eight Inc is credited with Apple’s pioneering store design, working with Apple for over a decade.
“We wanted to engage users, convey a clear message about the brand, and create a venue with superior visual articulation – so we built an environment designed entirely round the consumer, where service, learning and products were combined,” Eight Inc.’s website says of its projects with Apple. “300 locations later, our architecture and design has contributed to an unparalleled brand following and an increase in market share that has secured Apple’s position as the leading technology lifestyle brand.”
Apple and Eight Inc. created a store design that gives visitors the feeling of being surrounded by - and immersed in - the design elements that have come to symbolise Apple products. The spaces were primarily white, sleek and minimalistic.
The floor plan of an Apple store is spacious and symmetrical. The furniture is mostly rectangular, perfectly aligned shelving decorates the store with coloured product cases and accessories, and a sleek glass staircase serves as a passageway between floors in multi-level stores. Like the user-friendly navigation of its products, the furniture and wall features also provide an interior route to help customers navigate the store, providing a simple, unobstructed path for consumers.
There are tall tables for standing or leaning, seating at the Genius bar and staff members who engage, repair and play with live products so consumers feel they are in a space where interactivity is encouraged.
Apple products are also known for their industrial design, another trait reflected in store interiors. Where possible, ceilings are left exposed, revealing pipes and steel or left clean and minimal and suspended lighting illuminates the palette of white, black and silver products throughout the store.
The stores are not all white, however. Apple has implemented a warm touch to the technological stores with wooden tables and sandstone floors sourced and cut from a quarry outside Florence, Italy.
Last year, the company was even successful in trademarking the visual appearance of its stores, registering elements from the exteriors’ paneled façade to cantilevered shelves, multi-tiered shelving, rectangular tables, rectangular recessed lighting units and oblong tables with stools, to name a few. While the walls, floors, lighting and other fixtures were not registered, their placement in each store was, giving Apple a unique look.
Within a few months, Ahrendts will officially embark on her task of delivering Apple retail to consumers in new and interesting ways.
While Apple has not officially announced that there will be physical store upgrades, Ahrendts is expected to embed her successful Burberry strategy of connecting with consumers no matter how they access the brand, be it physical or virtual. She holds a golden opportunity to reinvent one of retail's most iconic concepts and bring Apple to the forefront of smart and engaging retail once again.