Apple's retail stores are the poster children for bricks-and-mortar retailing done right. In sales per square foot, retail's magic metric, Apple posts sales of $5,914, leaving other high-end merchants such as Tiffany ($3,070), Coach ($1,776) and Best Buy ($880) in the dust. What's the secret of their success?
Received wisdom would say that it's all about having great products like the iPod, iPhone and iPad. There is no shortage of Apple fanboys who would agree with that notion. But, retailing experts say, a great product is just table stakes.
"It's easier to deliver a great customer experience around unique products," said Doug Fleener, president and managing partner of Dynamic Experiences Group, a retail and customer experience consulting firm.
But hitching your star to a great product that's sold in a vacuum can be a double-edged sword, Fleener told BusinessNewsDaily.
"A lot of companies would have let the products sell themselves," he said. "Apple could have just created another consumer electronics store."
But they didn't. And they didn't rest their laurels just on the design or location of their stores.
Customer Experience is key
The star of the show is not the space. It's what's in that space, said Cliff Courtney, chief strategy office of Zimmerman Advertising. What's in that space is a world-class customer experience. And that experience is not just about the product.
"Product will only take you so far," said Leslie Kossoff, head of the Kossoff Group.
"Really good success happens by design and on purpose," said Mike Wittenstein, head of the Storyminer consumer experience design studio. "Apple puts its customers into its business design."
The Apple experience is as customer-centric as it gets. Nothing is left to chance, which is a natural extension of Apple CEO Steve Jobs ' storied obsessiveness, Fleener said.
"The customer experience is part of the whole value proposition," he said. "It's really about a fanatical attention to detail. When you’re in an Apple store it's all about the customer."
Apple customers have the expectation that they'll come out of an Apple store better off and smarter than they were before.
"If you deliver a great experience, they feel better about your brand and their day," Fleener said.
Part of that "great experience" is to make customers feel welcome and to make the best use of their time and interests and decrease the potential for frustration.
"It's what you do once you've got them inside the store," Wittenstein said. "Instead of going through the store like a pinball, you're greeted and your customer experience is architected to route your visit the best way. They stay focused on your needs. And they're also good listeners. Value does not have to be economic all the time."
Three pillars of the experience
Three pillars support the Apple experience, Courtney said. One of them is the Apple product list. Though Apple doesn't pin its hopes on its products alone, Apple's wares clearly have a magnetic charm.
"You could put those products anywhere in a mall and get a crush of people," Courtney said.
The second pillar is Apple's skill at marketing across channels. There is little difference in the customer experience between Apple online and in its bricks-and-mortar stores, other than the ability to play with the products.
"They're flawlessly consistent," said Courtney. "They know who they are."
The third pillar and key driver of Apple's customer service success is the people who work in the stores, Courtney added.
Employees hold the key
You're only as good as the people you hire, said Wittenstein. "The quality of the people at the Apple stores is key to the experience. They are passionate about the brand ."
"They're probably the best employees in the country," Courtney said. "First and foremost, they hire people who are Apple fanatics. Companies need to see people as a competitive advantage. No matter what someone sells, I can probably buy it somewhere else."
And purchasing, he said, is not as price-sensitive as some would suggest. A 2010 customer experience impact report commissioned by RightNow showed that 85 percent of consumers are willing to pay more to ensure superior customer service.
In crafting Apple's customer experience, Jobs has taken a page from Walt Disney's playbook, Wittenstein said.
"Disney is the grandfather of them all in terms of customer service," he said.
With Disney, the customer experience starts with the employee experience, Wittenstein said. Disney believed that treating your employees well pays handsome rewards.
"Treat your employees like gold," said Kossoff. "They will treat your customers like gold."
Though the Apple customer experience is special, it's not unique. It can be replicated. But it takes the right kind of leader.
"The standards in a store are on a piece of paper," Fleener said. "It's the leader who makes it happen. What Trader Joe does for food, Apple does for electronics."
Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.