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Twenty Years Later: Four Things Retailers Can Learn From Apple’s Entry in Retail

Twenty years ago this month, Apple opened its first retail stores in McLean, Va., and Glendale, Calif. Two decades later, the company has amassed hundreds of stores around the world and even debuted its most ambitious retail project to date during the pandemic: the first Apple Store to sit directly on water, a floating sphere over the iridescent Marina Bay in Singapore.

Gravity-defying retail concepts aside, as we reflect on Apple Stores’ 20th anniversary, it’s not the stunning architectural concepts, vast retail network, or even the products that reshaped consumer tech adoption that come to mind. It’s the fact that Apple — from day one — has shown the world the power and possibility of experiential retail

Apple Stores — whether flagship locations in major cities or smaller storefronts in suburban malls — have strived to bring Apple’s brand promise to life. Apple has relentlessly focused on delivering exceptional user experiences with every operating system, device, and app it brings to market — and it followed the same North Star when guiding its entry into the retail sector.

At a time when the future relevancy of physical stores has never been more widely speculated upon, there is a sense of both nostalgia and a spark for future innovation that ignites when reflecting on Apple’s meteoric rise in retail. 

While retail has changed light years since Apple opened its first stores, many of the same concepts it applied to its earliest retail strategies are still relevant today. In fact, some would argue they are now imperative.

So what ingredients make up Apple’s secret sauce for experiential retail? Here are four that I believe are most important for retail success going forward. 

  1. Establish a clear value proposition for your stores

Apple artfully translated its value proposition into the retail setting with value-adds that only a physical presence can provide.

The Genius Bar, classes, and other in-store events, combined with sales consultants’ ability to roam the store freely to assist customers, set a new standard for what it means to deliver an unparalleled in-store shopping experience.

The variety of services Apple offers in its stores is a universal proof point that a physical location can be the centerpiece of the customer journey. Apple gives customers a reason to visit the store, buy more, and come back more frequently.

  1. Empower store associates to be your competitive advantage

Retail has long understood that the more people trust you, the more they buy from you. Apple engenders deep trust with customers by staffing its stores with knowledgeable and helpful experts.

And while Apple offers deep support and expertise with its Genius Bar appointments, associate expertise is by no means limited to the Genius Bar.

Apple provides all its store associates with extensive training that leads to well-rounded product knowledge — and associates have the tools they need to promote the most productive and informed interactions with shoppers.

  1. Embrace data-driven retailing

Apple Stores benefit from a treasure trove of consumer data. The tech giant was one of the first to actually realize the long-anticipated vision of “a single view of the customer.”

By coupling that single view of the customer with a single view of the enterprise, Apple puts its data to work in a way that allows it to best meet customers’ needs while promoting operational efficiency.

With the ability to personalize interactions at every phase of the customer lifecycle, from marketing to digital and physical shopping to fulfillment, Apple’s holistic, data-driven approach has been a significant contributor to its success.

  1. Keep knocking down silos between digital and stores

Just as Apple reinvented how we work, create, consume music, and interact with the world around us via mobile devices, the company has been at the forefront of unified commerce.

Purchases made in each Apple store or channel are immediately visible to staff in the entire Apple ecosystem. Genius Bar appointments made online can be amended in-store, and vice versa.

Inventory availability is always a tap away from customers and associates alike, and associates can place an “endless aisle” order for customers shopping in the store without ever leaving their side.

While these types of transactions and services may seem commonplace today, when Apple introduced them, it was revolutionary. Consumers’ unified commerce expectations continue to grow more complex, which means retailers need to get more aggressive in eliminating any silos (be they systems, processes, etc.) that exist between their physical and digital touchpoints.

The future is bright

While Apple certainly raised the bar for retailing in the past 20 years, the future now belongs to those retailers that continue to evolve alongside their customers. Those that create a unique value proposition for their stores, empower their associates, adopt data-driven strategies, and sprint toward unified commerce are the ones I think we’ll be talking about in another 20 years.

Dave Bruno is director of retail industry insights at Aptos.

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