Tales from the Orchard: Apple’s retail challenge

An increasingly complex relationship with public spaces

 

By Michael Steeber of 9to5Mac

“We will know we have done really great if it feels like a town square,” explained Apple’s SVP of Retail Angela Ahrendts in May 2016. Ahrendts was specifically referring to Apple’s flagship Union Square store in San Francisco, but the goal was part of a broader initiative to reimagine the experience of all Apple retail stores.

With more people shopping online than ever before, the success of the town square strategy is critical to Apple’s continued relevance in a changing space where other well established brands have struggled. Yet even for Apple, the road hasn’t been without bumps. The push to move closer to the hearts of communities is increasingly met with skepticism and even hostility from residents. Apple is faced with a significant and growing long-term challenge that it will need to tackle in order to fully realize its retail strategy.

Town squares have been revered meeting and trade spaces since ancient times, so it’s no surprise that any changes to their fabric evoke strong feelings from communities. As public commons, these spaces reflect the values, priorities, culture, and preferences of those that occupy them. In a contemporary context, Apple and popular culture are inseparably bound by the ubiquity of iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches. This makes Apple’s pitch for modern-day town squares relatively straightforward: help people get more out of the lifestyle they’ve already embraced by providing spaces to meet up, learn, and get inspired.

If only it were that simple.

In each new city where Apple attempts to establish a significant contemporary store – typically adjacent to public space or inside a culturally notable building – a pattern of resistance is emerging. While every case is as unique and nuanced as the cities themselves, the broader sentiment is the same: citizens are wary of Apple’s reach.

At a time when advertising and branding proliferate every corner our digital lives, perhaps Apple is simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. Residents may see allowing a new store as the surrender of their last sanctuary from commercialism. But commercial presence around cultural centers is far from new. Chicago’s Millennium Park is just three blocks from the city’s largest shopping district, the Magnificent Mile. New York’s Central Park is home to several upscale restaurants. Quasi-public facilities like sporting venues are routinely named after large corporations, and urban public markets have been embraced by communities of all sizes.

“Some people may rejoice that they will have access to such a beautiful piece of architecture, but others will be clearly out of place,” writes Carlos Carmonamedina, a Washington D.C.-based artist, referring to Apple’s ambitious plan to restore the city’s historic Carnegie Library. Critics have argued that allowing a retail presence inside the library building, set to open later this year, undermines the original intent of the space as a public facility for learning. Apple’s answer is Today at Apple, a series of educational and community-driven sessions held at every store around the world. While the sessions are free and open to the public, signing up to attend still requires an Apple ID, and with the exception of live performances, getting the most out of a session often requires having your own devices.

Louder but sometimes less articulate are concerns raised over Apple’s proposed flagship store in Melbourne’s Federation Square. The project would be one of the company’s largest retail investments to date, placing a store not adjacent to public land, but on it. Construction would also come at the expense of the Yarra building, home of the Koorie Heritage Trust and numerous historic artifacts, all of which would be relocated. Apple says the proposal will improve the visibility and accessibility of the nearby Yarra River. The concerns of Melbourne citizens are justified, but difficult to parse amidst a wash of impassioned arguments that often devolve into attacks on Apple’s products and practices rather than the project itself.

Much of the momentum against Apple in Federation Square has been spearheaded by the “Our City, Our Square” movement, a campaign organized by Citizens for Melbourne. Last week, Apple revised their plans for the square after several months of continued unrest. Despite receiving approval from Federation Square’s original architect, the design changes have so far done little to quell the concerns of detractors, indicating that disapproval is less about the store’s architecture and more a matter of principle. Citizens of Melbourne did not respond to a request for comment.

In Sweden, a similar situation is unfolding. Apple and architecture firm Foster + Partners have revised renders depicting a retail presence at the head of Kungsträdgården, a historic park in Stockholm. Initial plans for the store were deemed too large and disruptive for the square. Even after redesigning the building with a more subdued footprint, nearly 80% of over 7,500 people surveyed in a recent Swedish poll viewed the store unfavorably.

“Personally, I think it would be a huge step up aesthetically from the (TGI) Friday’s restaurant that currently occupies the space, but I do think there could be even better use of the location than an Apple Store,” Stockholm-based software developer Andreas Hassellöf told me. In early July, public consultation began on the project, with hopes to facilitate similar civil discourse about the best use of the space.

Even Apple’s newly completed amphitheater in Milan, Italy has not gone without criticism. An unfavorable review in one Milanese newspaper called the store “an invasion.” Built underneath the historic Piazza Liberty, the space was formerly home to the Apollo Cinema.

In cities where town square-format Apple locations have already been established, communities have embraced the stores warmly, dissolving initial skepticism. Apple Michigan Avenue has quickly become an architectural destination and photography landmark in downtown Chicago. Apple Williamsburg in Brooklyn routinely draws crowds to star-studded live performances. So why are new projects so polarizing?

Apple’s earliest stores received little criticism, since most conformed to standard storefronts inside existing shopping malls throughout the United States. Even later and more ambitious projects were generally well received, with only a few exceptions like “there goes the neighborhood” concerns over New York’s Upper East Side store. Apple’s retail projects have long been lauded for their careful restoration and painstaking attention to detail.

Even the idea of Apple retail functioning as a gathering place isn’t entirely a new concept. Stores like Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona bordered public areas long before the rollout of Today at Apple. Widespread skepticism didn’t begin until Apple started explicitly promoting their stores as modern community hubs. A new wave of negative press coverage lamenting the privatization of public space followed when Angela Ahrendts used the words “town square” during an Apple keynote. Customers hear a message that Apple is trying to replace, not complement their cherished public spaces.

Misaligned expectations may also contribute to skepticism. Anyone who has been to a contemporary Apple store with the latest design elements, video wall, and Forum will immediately recognize how dramatically different the spaces feel compared to “classic” locations. But in Australia, only one store has been refreshed with the new design. In Sweden, none. Globally, only around one fifth of all locations can offer the full Today at Apple experience. Without visiting a new store or taking a Today at Apple session, it’s difficult for concerned citizens to form an accurate picture of how Apple will impact their community.

“Gadget store can’t be the best possible use—not in the District,” writes Kriston Capps for CityLab in an argument against an Apple store in Mount Vernon Square. The perception of Apple stores as simply electronics outlets – no different than a shiny Best Buy – is not uncommon, and it speaks to a need for more thorough communication from Apple to the communities they prepare to enter.

While Apple can’t send every Stockholm citizen to Milan to see what’s in store for Kungsträdgården (although a few local journalists were offered a preview), they can take a proactive role in the community before construction even begins. Hosting Today at Apple-esque events and sessions in local venues – even without an accompanying store – would reap goodwill and offer residents a preview of what they can look forward to. Projects like the former Apple Music Festival come to mind. “…After seeing what they have done here in Milan, I’m not particularly worried that it will be bad in Stockholm,” writes Feber.

History has shown that commercial activities and public space can live hand in hand when executed in way that provides a perceived value to every party involved. Broader acceptance of modern-day town squares will continue to be a significant challenge for Apple as their retail ambitions trend toward increasingly grand architecture projects. The success of a store can’t be measured only by completion and profitability, it must also be valued as a resource by those who live and work around it. An upfront effort to set the stage and educate people about a significant store wouldn’t be a frivolous expense, rather it demonstrates a long-term investment in a community that’s about to do the same.

How do you feel about Apple’s plans for it’s retail stores? Sound off in the comments below!

Tales from the Orchard: Apple celebrating International Women’s Day 2018 with recruiting event, special Today at Apple sessions

By Michael Steeber of 9to5Mac

Next Thursday, March 8th, communities across the world will celebrate International Women’s Day 2018. The annual day of recognition draws attention to the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This year, Apple will again join in the festivities with special events of their own at select retail stores.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #PressForProgress, a call for gender parity. In conjunction with the theme, Apple will hold a corporate recruiting event at Apple Marché Saint-Germain in Paris on the evening of the 8th. The event page gives a summary (translated from French):

“Celebrate International Women’s Day with Apple
At Apple, it is the big ideas that move the world. And it is the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives of employees that stimulates innovation. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, discover how to express your talents. Apple will open its doors for an evening of inspiration, participation and celebration.”

Attendees must register ahead of time to be allowed entry for the event, which runs from 8-10 P.M. Elsewhere in the world, Apple is hosting an 8-day series of special Today at Apple sessions at its retail store in Singapore, Apple Orchard Road.

The sessions will be hosted by women who inspire the Singapore community, and include topics like lyric writing, illustration, and coding with the Swift Playgrounds app.

Last March, Apple celebrated International Women’s Day 2017 with movie and TV show sections in the iTunes Store featuring talented female directors, producers, and actors. It is not yet known if the company will run a similar promotion this year.

Apple’s latest Diversity Report shows a 2% increase in women at Apple since 2014, while men still account for the majority of employees. Executives Tim Cook and Eddy Cue have recently discussed the importance of women in technology, with Cue acknowledging Apple’s need for greater diversity.

At the end of 2017, Apple’s VP of Diversity Denise Young-Smith left the company and was replaced by Christie Smith, formerly of Deloitte.

Tales from the Orchard: Apple’s Michigan Avenue retail store has a major design flaw.

 

How the Apple Store in Chicago became a dangerous place this Winter.

 

 

By Mark Kauffman of Mashable

Ominous, high-hanging icicles have turned Apple’s sleek, MacBook-inspired waterfront store in Chicago into a potentially perilous environment.

Apple has cordoned off, with caution tape and signage, vulnerable areas where the sharp ice could fall. Chicago blogger Matt Maldre first spotted the architectural mishap, brought on by this winter’s severe Arctic blast.

The architectural company Foster + Partners designed the carbon fiber roof to mimic a flat MacBook Pro laptop. They even emblazoned an Apple logo atop the roof — just like on the actual devices.

The building might be a design marvel — with pure glass walls and svelte steel columns — but it apparently lacks much winter utility, notably for a place specifically designed for public gathering, conducive to a social, urbanite atmosphere.
Share Quote

At the Apple event in September, Apple’s senior vice president of retail, Angela Ahrendts, said forthcoming Apple Stores would be “town square” spaces.

But perhaps not in winter. There are no gutters to catch falling snow or ice. Nor is the roof sloping, so icicles that do form aren’t dangling from 20 some feet overhead.

Indeed, it’s common for icicles to form on buildings in Chicago, especially during these freeze events; so the Apple store isn’t uniquely forming sharp icicles. But come winter, this particular “town square” can become a precarious place.

What are your thoughts on Apple’s “Design over Function” dilemma with it’s newly designed Retail stores? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Tales from the Orchard – “Today at Apple” could easily backfire unless carefully managed at busier Apple Stores

 

By Ben Lovejoy of 9to5Mac

Among the images that Apple proudly featured in officially launching its Today at Apple initiative was one from an event I attended myself: an acoustic concert at London’s Regent Street store.

That was an accurate reflection of the event. The singer gave an excellent performance to an appreciative audience. But it didn’t provide the complete picture. The top photo, taken with my iPhone from my position close to the stage area, shows another aspect of the event: massive crowding with basically zero attempt at controlling those crowds …

You had to register to attend the concert, and places were theoretically limited to 250. But there was nothing at all to control numbers. The area wasn’t roped off in any way.

You could voluntarily check-in with staff, but it was clear that many of those who didn’t get places turned up anyway, and there were also people who were in the store when they saw from the huge screen that it was happening and decided to stay for it. There was no attempt by staff to find out who was registered and who wasn’t – and no system in place to make this a practical proposition.

We were fortunate to get there early enough to get places close to the front, but there would have been many more registered people who arrived before the start and would have been left standing just inside the front doors.

There was also a woman who told staff she was unable to stand for an hour, and while a couple of members of staff said they would try to find her a seat, the crowds meant this was basically an impossible task at which they failed. Not great for a company which says accessibility is a core value.

The crowds additionally meant that it would have been a nightmare to either try out any of Apple’s products or make a purchase. The display tables were packed with people watching the show, and staff wanting to sell anything had to fight their way through the throng to fetch products.

Granted, this was a special event designed to highlight the initiative. The vast majority of the events are the same workshops that have been offered for many years, and even with extra publicity aren’t going to attract those kind of crowds. But if Apple intends to make special events a regular feature, it has to manage the space a lot better than it did at the weekend.

I wrote before that I’m all in favor of Apple highlighting one of its best-kept secrets. Workshops are a great way to learn how to get more from Apple hardware and software, and also a place to get inspired about creative projects. I also support the notion of Apple Stores becoming places you go to try products, and to get informed about them, while most sales are made online.

But Apple also needs to remember that the primary function of a retail store is to allow customers to see the products, experience them and – yes – buy them. Almost every Apple Store I’ve visited has already been unpleasantly crowded. Adding special events into the mix requires it to develop proper processes to handle the crowds. Otherwise all that is achieved is that a lot of would-be customers get driven out of the stores.

Here are some other Quotes from some other reviewers:

“After the flat response to watches and watchbands, Angela must have spent a lot of time “hanging out” at Starbucks. You know, because buying an overpriced computer is exactly like buying an overpriced beverage. It is all too clear that Apple is after the same shallow, privileged, label-focused clientele.”

“Isn’t it amazing what a brilliant multimillionaire overpaid broad can come up with to spur more sales when she has no clue what the majority of computer users actually do?”

“Sounds like a near-cliche, nothing like a zinger to jab at the competition which itself would generate love and hate articles debating its use. It generates no emotion at all, the key to good PR no matter what part of the company it comes from.
That name comes straight from tradition and from the Balmeric-style establishment.
I truly am disappointed by its lack of creativity.”

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