applestore

Minding The (Apple)Store

 

As I’ve written many times in the past, I’m part of the vast chorus that praises the Apple Store. And not just for the uncluttered product displays, the no-pressure sales people (who aren’t on commission), or the Genius Bar that provides expert help, but for the impressive architecture. Apple beautifies existing venues (Regent Street in London, rue Halevy near the Paris Opera) or commissions elegant new buildings, huge ones at times.

It’s a relentlessly successful story. Even the turmoil surrounding John Browett’s abbreviated tenure as head of Apple’s worldwide retail organization hasn’t slowed the pace  of store openings and customer visits. (As always, Horace Dediu provides helpful statistics and analysis in his latest Asymco post.)

It has always struck me as odd that in Palo Alto, Apple’s heartland and Steve Jobs’ adopted hometown, Apple had only a modestly-sized, unremarkable venue on University Avenue, and an even smaller store in the Stanford Shopping Center.

All of that changed on October 27th when the black veil that shrouded an unmarked project was removed, and the newest Apple Store — what some are calling a “prototype” for future venues, a “flagship” store — was revealed. (For the civic-minded — or the insomniac — you can read the painfully detailed proposal, submitted to Palo Alto’s Architectural Review Board nearly three years ago, here.)

I came back from a trip on November 2nd, the day the iPad mini became available, and immediately headed downtown. The new store is big, bold, elegant, even more so at night when the very bright lights and large Apple logo on its front dominate the street scene. (So much so I heard someone venture that Apple has recast itself as the antagonist in its 1984 commercial.)

The store is impressive… but its also unpleasantly, almost unbearably noisy. And mine isn’t a voice in the wilderness. The wife of a friend walked in, spent a few minutes, and vowed to never return for fear of hearing loss. She’d rather go to the cramped but much more hospitable Stanford store.

A few days later, I heard a similar complaint from the spouse of an Apple employee. She used to enjoy accompanying her husband to the old Palo Alto store, but now refuses because of the cacophony.

‘Now you know the real reason for Browett’s firing’, a friend said, half-seriously. ‘How can you spend North of $15M on such a strategically placed, symbolic store, complete with Italian stone hand-picked by Jobs himself…and give no consideration to the acoustics? It’s bad for customers, it’s bad for the staff, it’s bad for business, and it’s bad for the brand. Apple appears to be more concerned with style than with substance!’

Ouch.

The sound problem stems from a combination of the elongated “Great Hall”, parallel walls, and reflective building materials. The visually striking glass roof becomes a veritable parabolic sound mirror. There isn’t a square inch of sound-absorbing material in the entire place.

A week later, I returned to the store armed with the SPL Meter iPhone app. As the name indicates, SPL Meter provides a Sound Pressure Level (SPL) measurement in decibels.(Decibels form a logarithmic scale where a 3 dB increase means roughly twice as much sound pressure — noise in our case; +10 dB is ten times the sound pressure.)

For reference, a normal conversation at 3 feet (1m) is 40 to 60 dB; a passenger car 30 feet away produces levels between 60 and 80 dB. From the Wikipedia article above: “[The] EPA-identified maximum to protect against hearing loss and other disruptive effects from noise, such as sleep disturbance, stress, learning detriment, etc. [is] 70 dB.”

On a relatively quiet Saturday evening, the noise level around the Genius Bar exceeded 75 dB:

Outside, the traffic noise registered a mere 65 dB. It was 10 db noisier inside the store than on always-busy University Avenue!

Even so, the store on that Friday was a virtual library compared to the day the iPad mini was launched, although I can’t quantify my impression: I didn’t have the presence of mind to whip out my iPhone and measure it.

Despite the (less-than-exacting) scientific evidence and the corroborating anecdotes, I began to have my doubts. Was I just “hearing things”? Could Apple really be this tone deaf?

Then I saw it: An SPL recorder — a professional one — perched on a tripod inside the store.

I also noticed two employees wearing omnidirectional sound recorders on their shoulders (thinking they might not like the exposure, I didn’t take their pictures.) Thus, it appears that Apple is taking the problem seriously.

But what can it do?

It’s a safe bet that Apple has already engaged a team of experts, acousticians who tweak the angles and surfaces in concert halls and problem venues. I’ve heard suggestions that Apple should install an Active Noise Control system: Cancel out sound waves by pumping in their inverted forms — all in real time. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work well (or at all) in a large space.

Bose produces a rather effective solution…in the controlled environment of headphones.

This prompted the spouse mentioned above to suggest that Apple should hand out Bose headphones at the door.

Two days after the noisy Apple store opened its doors, Browett was shown the exit. Either Tim Cook is fast on the draw or, more likely, my friend is wrong: Browett’s unceremonious departure had deeper roots, most likely a combination of a cultural mismatch and a misunderstanding of his role. The Browett graft didn’t take on the Apple rootstock, and the newly hired exec couldn’t accept that he was no longer a CEO.

Browett’s can’t be scapegoated for the acoustical nightmare in the new Apple Store. Did the rightly famous architectural firm, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, not hear the problem? What about the highly reputable building contractor (DPR) which has built so many other Apple Stores? Did they stand by and say nothing, or could they simply not be heard?

Perhaps this was a case of “Launchpad Chicken”, a NASA phrase for a situation where many people see trouble looming but keep quiet and wait for someone else to bear the shame of aborting the launch. It reminds me of the Apple Maps fiasco: An obvious problem ignored.

What a waste spending all that money and raising expectations only to move from a slightly undersized but well-liked store to a bigger, noisier, colder environment that turns friends away.

Having tacitly admitted that there’s a problem, Apple’s senior management can now show they’ll stop at nothing to make the new store as inviting as it was intended to be.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Why Apple Should Follow Michelin

What’s the use of offering more than 500,000 wares if customers can’t find their way through the gigantic bazaar? I know, I already harped on about the lack of curation in Apple’s App Store, but that was 16 months ago…when the Store contained a “mere” 250,000 apps.

Since then, the iPhone has sold in ever larger numbers (we’ll soon see if the December quarter number crossed the 30 million units line, and by how much) and with more than 18 billion downloads, the App Store is an unmitigated success. If this is what “broken” looks like, why fix it? And how?

To answer the question, let’s take a trip back a hundred years to Clermont-Ferrand, home of Michelin. Known for its tires and tourists guides, Michelin is a very old company (incorporated in 1888), but they’ve always been at the forefront of their technology. Tires are complex products whose role in the safety, comfort, and economy of our driving experience lead Michelin engineers to joke that cars are peripheral to their lovingly engineered creations. (If you find yourself traveling through the center of France, treat yourself to a visit to L’Aventure Michelin, a really interesting museum that recounts the company’s many adventures, most of which are unknown, surprising, or forgotten.)

Edouard and André Michelin weren’t just good techies, they were astute businessmen and marketing geniuses. They seized on an obvious idea: If people take more road trips, we’ll sell more tires. And they shone in the execution that followed this intuition, they went far and well in their efforts to encourage and guide automobile travel. Michelin became famous for its world class roadmaps, for the Red Guides that grade hotels and restaurants, and Green Guides for regions, historic sites, and countries. The company also published literary Guides Bleus, forgoing culinary delights for a more cultural angle in their interpretation of locales. (I’ll skip their other marketing inventions, such as the Bibendum character and the iconic Michelin kilometer stones and road signs.)

Michelin had a staff of agents at the ready to devise an itinerary for your trip, all you had to do was write or call.

Did this “content”, as we would now call it, make money for Michelin? Possibly, but the revenue was negligible compared to the amount their tires generated. Michelin’s maps, guides, and services were created with one goal in mind, one mission: sell hardware. That’s where the real margins were, and still are.

Is Apple’s situation, it’s mission, all that different? Hardware revenue and margins are the sacred business model. Everything else, including the App Store, must support the ultimate goal. (For reference, the App Store generates less than 2% of Apple’s revenue, and much less than 2% of its profits.)

The scale of the App Store’s success, probably unforeseen by its creators, could lead management into complacency: Look at these numbers, ain’t they great? This is an incumbent’s attitude. And we know what happens to those.

But ask developers and, most important, users. For all its demonstrable success, the App Store feels broken. It’s too big and confusing, the app reviews are dry and the ratings are unreliable, search is primitive…

Label me naif, but I think Apple could do well by following the century-old Michelin model. It won’t take billions to implement, nor will it require the administration of the Apple Genii, just competent people and hard work. Here’s what a possible solution looks like:

Apple sets up a team in charge of publishing an App Store Guide. The editorial team writes opinionated (and presented as such) reviews of apps by category: Productivity, Games, Utilities, and the like. Published daily on a blog and accumulated in an on-line Guide, these reviews, one to two pages long, present the writer’s experience and opinion, culminating in a ranking in stars or numbers. It sounds simple, often the sign of a twisty road ahead…

Trouble starts quickly.

First obstacle: It’s already being done. True. How many iOS App Review Sites there are? According to this blog, the answer is…116! This is good news: Apple’s customers have an appetite for reviews, but which sites and reviewers can they trust? How do these reviewers make money? There’s no dispassionate, incorruptible Consumer Reports for apps.

Second, there’s Apple’s penchant for control. True, again — but irrelevant. Going back to Michelin, their opinion of a restaurant might be controversial, but the company has no financial gain in the number of stars they assign. They sell tires, not meals. Similarly, Apple wants to move hardware, not generate App Store revenue by favoring one app over another.

Third, attempting to sift through 500,000 apps amounts to boiling the ocean. How can one even hope to ‘‘make a dent” in that universe? But that’s no reason to sit on one’s hands. Let’s say that after a year the Apple App Guide has featured “only” 2,500 reviews, an average of 50 reviews a week, ten a day. Is that bad compared to today’s mess?

Fourth, the expense. Let’s do a gross, back-of-the-envelope overestimation: 20 reviewers at $250K/year “fully loaded” with management overhead and office expenses included. This gets us to $5M/year. Apple is notoriously cautious, if not downright stingy with (most) expenses, but $5M would be lost in the income statement noise. And this miniscule investment would exert a healthy influence on the rest of the app review ecosystem, just as the Apple Store raised the game for its independent retailers.

Fifth, the people. Will readers trust the opinions of enlisted Apple employees, or will they insist on “independent” voices? An employee’s loyalty is to the company, and there could be grumblings that a staff of corporate reviewers would choose apps that, above all else, show off the platform and the Apple brand. On the other hand, independent contractors are just that: independent. As such, they’re much more susceptible to “external influences.” There are any number of gadget blogs that smell of greasy palms and astroturfing.

Apple possesses [five s’s in a nine-letter word!] a treasure of closely-guarded user data — off-limits to a contractor — that could prove very helpful in rating apps. It’s “simply” a matter of finding, hiring, training, and managing competent and honest curators.

Today, Apple already demonstrates a type of curation when it decides which apps get featured as New and Noteworthy, or Staff Favorites. They might as well go all the way and please their users with subjective, personal reviews. Encourage the kommentariat to cluck its disapproval, allow dinged developers to rage online. If presented as an honest, competent effort — occasionally wrong but always with the Apple imprimatur — the review process will be as respected as any other high-quality editorial effort.

I hope Apple’s success won’t blind it to the need to give app seekers more than today’s skimpy categories and unreliable user reviews. Who knows, if Amazon or Google were to wake to the opportunity, their moves could spur Apple into action.

JLG@mondaynote.com

10 Years of Apple Stores: the non-celebration

Apple and understatement aren’t close relatives. Not that they don’t have a right to strut a bit: after all, under its returning co-founder, Apple 2.0 performed the most stunning corporate turn around ever — and shows no sign of slowing down. As a result, product launches, developer conferences and quarterly earnings announcements all turn into opportunities for the company to blow its own horn.
So, when the 10th anniversary of the first Apple Store came by, I expected a big celebration: fireworks, decorated stores, laser engravings on Anniversary Edition iPods, a coffee table book with a Steve Jobs foreword, a speech, a video… Yet, on May 19th, nothing happened. At least publicly.
All we got was a leaked internal poster celebrating 10 years of achievements and learnings:

An eyeful or an eye-chart. You can get a more legible PDF version from ifoAppleStore.com. Or, courtesy of Tech Evangelist Joey deVilla, a version obligingly rendered in text with paragraphs. Longish as it might be, the document is worth reading: it rings true and proud; it is manifesto of Apple’s retail philosophy — and of its impact on the entire company.

I decided there had to be a reason for the official quiet. I wanted to make the anniversary a Monday Note topic, but hearing the silence and unable to ascribe a meaning to it, I decided to bin the topic for a while.

The wait didn’t last long: Ron Johnson, Apple’s Sr. VP or Retail Operation announced his departure right after the June 6-10 WWDC. Divorce papers the morning after the anniversary… The muting of the celebration made (some) sense.

But why did Ron Johnson leave?

Under his tenure, Apple Stores have become the envy of the retail industry, breaking one record after another: revenue per square feet, year-to-year growth, store size, foot traffic and architectural design. (See here for a neat set of Apple Store statistics.)
With such a record, one can easily see Apple’s “retail guru” standing up, declaring “My Job Is Done” and leaving on a high note.
Then, sparing us the rote “spending more time with my family” explanation, Ron states he always wanted to be the CEO of a major retail chain. JC Penney just happened to need a new CEO, this was an opportunity to fulfill a long-time ambition, to become his own boss.

All very logical, but, for a number of reasons, the polished tale doesn’t quite ring true.

First, with 326 Apple Stores, the job isn’t quite done. Exceedingly well done so far, but not complete. For example, after the US, China is now Apple’s second market, it is where Apple experiences its largest year-to-year growth. According to ifoAppleStore.com, the site that does an excellent job of documenting the life of Apple Stores, Apple will open 25 more stores in China by the end of 2012. My own observations of Apple’s third market, Western Europe, lead me to believe Apple is very far from reaching saturation there. For example, with a population of about 36 million, California has 49 Apple Stores. France, with a population of 62 million, only has 7. Per capita GDP differences ($47K vs. $34K yearly) don’t account for the disparity. We can safely assume this applies to Western Europe as a whole, showing how much headroom Apple Stores still have there.
No one knows what the saturation is, fortunes have been lost by those who believe trees grow to the sky, but there is no reason to consider Apple Stores are “done”. One could just as easily call today’s Apple Stores network ‘’a good start’’.

Second, Apple Stores are always evolving. This gets us much closer to the real explanation than my previous point. The never ending stream of changes, the attention ranging from architectural design to minute furniture details all bear another man’s imprint: Steve Jobs’. We’ll recall he picked Bohlin Cywinski Jackson as the architects for Pixar’s elegant headquarters — and kept using the firm for most Apple Stores building or renovation projects. In the process, several Apple Stores became architectural icons. Then, when it came to interior design, Jony Ive, Apple’s Senior VP of Industrial Design took a lead role.
For the ever changing details, watch Steve Jobs proudly take us through the first Apple Store in this 2001 video. And compare with today’s setup.
For amateurs of minutiae, ignore the main checkout podium where MacBooks run transactions and, instead, take a look at a standard product display table. Your friendly Apple Store employee just performed a painless cashectomy using the newer iPod Touch-based portable Point Of Sale terminal. Now, where is the printer for your receipt? Affixed under the table’s main board, upside down, invisible. No unseemly display of non-Apple appliances. For the occasional cash transaction, foreign visitors mostly, a few tables also carry a barely visible cash drawer cut in the side.

Recently, stores reduced space dedicated to accessories, peripherals and, with the Mac App Store in mind, boxed software. This resulted in more room for something called Personal Setup, where an Apple employee helps a customer get started with his/her new purchase.

You get the idea: “Apple”, meaning Steve Jobs, is never satisfied, always looking for ways to improve its stores or, for that matter, anything else Apple.

In the end, in spite of his signal contribution to Apple’s success, Johnson must have felt disenfranchised. Coming in, he brought with him expertise and contacts “Apple” didn’t possess. Over time, Jobs’ keen interest in the matter turned into heavy involvement in every facet of the operation. Apple Stores became Steve’s brainchild, not Ron’s. Hence his decision to look for an opportunity to be really in charge, as opposed to working for a gifted, focused and strong-willed visionary.

Now, why did Ron Johnson pick JC Penney?

He doesn’t need the money, we’re told he made about $400M working at Apple. And JC Penney, to say it politely, isn’t the most attractive of US retailers. Once an American icon, JC Penney is now a tired chain. All the better, some say: Ron Johnson will bring some of the Apple magic and revive the company. This is drawing a very superficial comparison:  the two kinds of retail establishments couldn’t be further apart. Apple runs with a very small number of SKUs (Stock Keeping Units), a very short product line. Conventional retailers tens of thousands of different products. Apple is willing to spend tens of millions on a single store, JC Penney never did and very likely never will. Apple products are often elegant, if not iconic, not something that can be said of JC Penney’s merchandise.
Further, it looks like Ron’s CEO title isn’t exactly endowed with full meaning: Reuters and the WSJ let us know his role will be “limited”, at least initially, “focussed on marketing and merchandise selection, while Ullman [the real CEO and Chairman] will oversee the more common executive responsibilities of accounting, finance, corporate strategy and logistics…”
The Ullman in question is Myron (Mike) Ullman, age 64, a veteran retail executive with experience at LVMH’s DFS (Duty Free Stores) business unit and RH Macy, among others. He also sits on the Board of Directors of companies such as Starbuck’s and Global Crossings, and of several Bay Area charitable organizations.
Another unexplained datum is Ron’s start date: November 1st. The most likely but hard to confirm explanation must lie in a paragraph of his Apple exit agreement.
When that date comes, we’ll see if Mike Ullman really handles the reins to Ron or if the Apple alumnus finds himself working for yet another strong-willed boss.

Back to the Apple stores and to Ron Johnson’s legacy: quoting David Berman and his quarterly DeeBee Index, USA Today reports Apple contributed to 20% of “all sales growth by publicly traded retailers in the U.S”, this for the first three months of 2011. One has to qualify the number a bit: it relates to publicly traded retailers only, not to the entire US retail sector. Still, keeping in mind the likes of Walmart are all publicly traded, Apple’s share is surprisingly high.

We’ll now more in a few days, when Apple releases its numbers for Q2, the April to June 2001 quarter.

JLG@mondaynote.com