Apple Retail Stores


A brief history of Apple



What we know today as Apple Inc. was founded by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne in April 1976.

Their first consumer product was the Apple II which did for personal computers what the Model T Ford did for motor cars.

When they introduced the first Macintosh in 1984, they showed the world what the future of computers would look like with their graphical user interface.

The Macintosh set the gold standard for hardware and software design and integration and it took years before competitors could catch up technically. However, Apple's competitors didn't need to catch up technically to get ahead commercially.

The company went through a slump between 1986 and 1997 during the period when the visionary Steve Jobs was ousted from the board and pursued other interests. When he returned to Apple in 1997, the company was rapidly losing value and Jobs began to implement changes that heralded one of the biggest turnarounds in the history of commerce. He started by restructuring their product offering and then, with one success after another, he built Apple over the next ten years into the most valuable and influential company in the world.

Through the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, Apple completely transformed the world of consumer technology, making die-hard fans and evangelists out of millions of delighted customers. But maintaining delight is a matter of delicate balance. And even when core indicators of delight are embedded in the cultural blueprint of a company, there is a risk that the entire edifice could become unstable.

Customer delight factors



​Apple makes premium quality tech products for everyday use by ordinary people. 

They focus on creating beautiful, original designs. Their attention to detail in manufacturing, coupled with top quality materials, has yielded a relatively small total number of products. And yet they have had a massive influence on the rest of the industry, and even on popular culture. 

Much of their product philosophy is captured in these thoughts from their ingenious chief designer, Jonathan Ive, on why he decided to put a handle on the iconic 1998 iMac:

"Back then, people weren't comfortable with technology. If you're scared of something, then you won't touch it. I could see my mum being scared to touch it. So I thought, if there's this handle on it, it makes a relationship possible. It's approachable. It's intuitive. It gives you permission to touch. It gives a sense of its deference to you."

Steve Jobs
  • Apple's explicit intention is to create products that are inviting to customers.
  • Make your products more inviting to customers.
  • How can you make your products more inviting to customers?


Before Apple created its first retail store it built a complete prototype inside a warehouse. 

After several iterations, the designers settled on the basic genius bar metaphor that runs throughout their stores today, which is based on a typical concierge desk at a hotel.

Why a concierge desk? 

Because Apple's research revealed that most of their customers experienced their best service at a concierge desk.

And why not? 

Who said you had to sell technology products by putting them on shelves? Instead they put their products on display for customers to play with. And they staffed their genius bars with friendly, tech-savvy people to help customers through their tech challenges.

​Entering many technology retailers can be intimidating. You're not always sure what you want.

There are so many options and the store staff are seldom equipped to help you. But entering an Apple store is about enjoying the products. You can make calls and send messages on the phones. The laptops are powered up, full of fun applications, and their screens are tilted at a precise angle, which is calculated to be the optimum balance between being aesthetically pleasing and ideal for customer browsing. And if you need help, an Apple genius is never more than a few metres away.

  • Apple's stores are designed with the explicit intention of delighting customers.
  • Adjust your store design to be more delightful to customers.
  • How could you redesign your store in a way that is more delightful to your customers?


Since the release of the first iMac, Apple has made a point of creating delightful unboxing experiences for its products. 

They usually come in slim, attractive boxes that are not much bigger than the product itself. All the components you need are folded into neat recesses within the box. And the experience of opening the box is designed to be a sequence of pleasant surprises. 

First,after lifting the lid or removing the primary covering, you see the product almost immediately. Protective insulation is specially designed so as not to obscure the customer's view of the item they've just purchased. Then, after removing the primary product, the customer sees a neatlyfolded power cable or a remote control, a keyboard, a mouse, or whatever peripherals are relevant.

Often there is also a manual that is almost laughable in its simplicity, because it indicates that you need only plug in the product and turn it on. The experience puts the luxury and simplicity of the product on show. And it is instantly obvious that there is almost zero effort involved in getting started.

  • Apple creates a delightful after-sale experience by showing off its beautiful products and reducing customer effort to almost zero.
  • Show off your products in their packages.
  • Reduce after-sale customer effort.
  • What can you do to your package design to show off your products?
  • How can you reduce after-sale customer effort?

Product use

​Apple products are designed to be super simple to use. 

When other computers were forcing users to adapt to complicated command line interfaces,

Apple was building machines with graphical user interfaces controlled by a mouse. 

The company spends an enormous amount of time and energy figuring out how to strip away the effort of using technology so that the user can focus her time and energy on enjoying her work.

"Look at the design of a lot of consumer products — they're really complicated surfaces. We tried to make something much more holistic and simple. When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often at times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don't put in the time or energy to get there. We believe that customers are smart, and want objects which are well thought through."

Steve Jobs

Besides achieving a delightful user experience through simplicity, Apple also deliberately builds delightful interactions in its user interfaces. For example, when you delete an icon from the application doc, it doesn't just disappear, it dissipates with a poof into a cloud of smoke. 

Is this a necessary feature? Not really. But it's certainly delightful. And since it's a visual cue that the user can relate to on an intuitive level, it actually goes a long way towards helping a person understand how to use the machine, as well as building up a personal connection with the software.

  • Apple deliberately builds delight into the experience of using its products.
  • Build delight into the way your product functions.
  • How can you build delight into the way your product functions?

The evangelical Apple tribe

​Apple users tend to form emotional attachments with their products. 

Attention to delight in hardware and software results in customers creating strong human connections with the technology. 

This turns many Apple customers into evangelists for the brand. Despite the company's mainstream success, the brand has always been niche, independent, alternative, against the grain. The essence of this was captured best by Apple's "Think different" ad campaign, which featured images and video footage of great 20th century iconoclasts, including John Lennon, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Frank Lloyd Wright. By positioning the brand as being rebellious, they appeal to the rebel in people, which is a vigorous association. 

It allows all kinds of people to adopt the brand as their own, in celebration of their individual differences. ​

  • Apple cultivates a brand image that allows its customers to feel like they can be both part of a tribe and express their individuality.
  • Create brand messages that allow your customers to identify with each other, but also express their individuality.
  • What brand messages will allow your customers to identify with each other, but also express their individuality?

New product purchase

​The result of this affinity with both brand and product is an extremely loyal customer base.

An August 2011 survey of smart phone users by UBS showed that Apple's iPhone had an 89% retention rate. It's nearest competitor, HTC, was at 39%. The iPhone has been the primary driver of Apple's success in recent years, but the effect extends to the rest of Apple's product range, as well as to the retail stores.

Employee delight factors

Background to Apple's retail stores

In this case study, we'll focus only on Apple's retail store staff and not their broader work force of more than 60,000 employees, which is distributed across multiple divisions.

When Jobs first proposed the idea of Apple retail stores he struggled to find support on the board for the idea. After a long fight he won enough trust to get the go-ahead and so began the careful process of designing the store concept. Apple's research showed that most of their customers had experienced the highest levels of service at a hotel concierge desk. So this became the metaphor around which much of the original store idea was built.

That is, a place you could buy and get service for Apple products, which was as good as the best hotel service you've ever had.

But a concierge desk is not much without a concierge. And so the success of Apple's retail stores rests largely on the strength of it's store staff. The success of the retail stores around the world has shown two things: the concierge concept works; and there are plenty of suitable, available candidates. However, over time, this winning formula has become heavily stressed.

Apple's fan base are its job seekers

Apple receives applications for its store staff via its website. The vast majority of these applications come from hard core Apple fans.

The advantage of this is that all prospective employees arrive as brand champions, meaning that no effort is required to get new people to cultivate a sense of delight in the company's products.

  • Apple recruits from its fan base.
  • Recruit from your fan base.
  • What can you do to recruit from your fan base?

Apple leadership

While Steve Jobs was at the helm of Apple, he made a concerted effort to establish a solid company culture. He felt that the best way for leadership to learn how to tackle challenges was to study how previous Apple leaders had tackled similar problems in the past. To this end he established the Apple University, where leaders become schooled in the Apple way. This is one key way in which Apple successfully transmits memes throughout the company. 

That is, through formal training. But perhaps even more effective is that the company reduces its core values to simple, repeatable messages that act as guiding principles to employees in a myriad of contexts.

One such message, which new Apple store recruits hear over and over is "enrich people's lives". That is, as an Apple store employee, you're not selling widgets to customers, you're enriching their lives. This gives the employee an enormous sense of importance. They feel they're part of something great, substantial mission. And if they're ever in any doubt about how they should behave, they can ask themselves a simple question, "Am I helping to enrich my customer's life?" By answering that question, they're inspired to act in a way that is well above and beyond the typical actions of a retail store employee.

Chip and Dan Heath explore this use of sticky messages in their book, Made To Stick, when they describe the military concept of commander's intent:

"Commander's Intent (CI) is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan's goal, the desired end-state of an operation. At high levels of the Army, the CI may be relatively abstract: "Break the will of the enemy in the Southeast region."At the tactical level, for colonels and captains, it is much more concrete: "My intent is to have Third Batallion on Hill 4305, to have the hill cleared of the enemy, with only ineffective remnants remaining, so we can protect the flank of Third Brigade as they pass through the lines."

Commander's Intent

In a company like Apple, "enrich people's lives," is an example of commander's intent, that helps employees to keep core values top of mind.

  • Apple's stated intent is to enrich people's lives.
  • Make it your company's clear, stated intent to delight your customers.
  • What message can you send out to your employees that make them pay attention to delight?

The recruitment and selection process

Apple looks for two key qualities in its retail staff: an affable nature; and their propensity to be selfstarters.

Basically, they look for people with a good, positive work attitude. They recognise that it's easier to train tech savvy than it is to recondition someone's attitude.

Three questions that Apple recruiters must ask about the prospective store staff they have interviewed:
  1. Do they display grit? (Can s/he perform under pressure?)
  2. Can the candidate offer a Ritz-Carlton level of customer service? (What have they done to show that they can go above and beyond?)
  3. Could the candidate have gone toe-to-toe with Steve Jobs? (Do they balance good knowledge with honesty about their limits?)


Extensive training, balancing customer service techniques with customer empathy and a high focus on Apple's culture of enriching customers' lives.

Immersion – The employee experience

Characterised by:

  • High expectations
  • Long hours
  • Disillusionment 


Low pay (comparative to company earnings and working conditions)

Career path

Low upward mobility.


Limited autonomy.


Opportunity for master, but this is stunted by low upward mobility.


An elevated sense of purpose.

A customer-centric company is more than a company ...
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