- Apple has begun reopening stores in areas such as South Korea, Austria, and Australia, coming after the company closed all locations outside of China indefinitely.
- The policies being implemented in Apple Stores provide a glimpse at how the shopping experience could change more broadly.
- In Apple Stores that are open, the company is asking that patrons maintain social distancing of two meters (six feet), wear face coverings while in the store, and consent to temperature checks.
- Apple’s moves during the coronavirus have in some cases preempted more widespread changes throughout the pandemic.
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There are many uncertainties around how the economy will recover from the COVID-19 crisis, as it remains unclear when it will be safe to reopen retail stores, restaurants, offices, and other institutions in the United States, where the virus has struck particularly hard.
But if one thing does seem certain, it’s that the shopping experience is shaping up to look a lot different than it did before the pandemic emerged. Apple’s decision to reopen some international stores, however, may provide a glimpse at what retail could look like.
Apple made the unprecedented move in March to temporarily shutter all of its locations outside of China, even before stay-at-home orders were issued in the US. Now, all of its stores in China are open, and the firm has reopened locations in South Korea, Austria, and Australia – the last of which saw Apple Stores reopen on Thursday.
Such decisions came as the coronavirus has begun to wane in these parts of the world. South Korea, for example, was able to flatten its curve by rapidly ramping up testing and using technology like smartphone location tracking apps. Australia has been praised for its quick response to the pandemic that helped the country keep the virus’ spread under control compared to other industrialized countries. Austria’s government said its timely moves and abundance of testing put the country in a situation to start reopening.
Given Apple’s vast resources, its reputation as a retail visionary, and the close eye it’s kept on the coronavirus since it first emerged in China, the company’s actions could provide a look at what’s to come when retailers in the United States eventually begin to reopen.
“They have set the pace for the market,” Leslie Hand, vice president of the International Data Corporation’s Retail Insights, said, referring to Apple. “I think as we go forward, other retailers will look to make sure they’re in the same place.”
In Apple Stores that are open, the company is asking that patrons maintain social distancing of two meters, wear face coverings while in the store, and consent to temperature checks. Because of the social distancing rules, fewer customers will be able to fit in an Apple Store at a given time, meaning there may sometimes be a wait to get into the store.
Those changes are far less drastic than what some retail experts imagine may be implemented in the long-term once society begins to reopen. For example, the pandemic could prompt retailers to experiment more with delivery drones, robots, and virtual reality, Chengyi Lin, an affiliate professor of strategy at INSEAD business school, previously said to Business Insider’s Mary Hanbury.
Apple’s current measures are not unlike what many shoppers in the US and other parts of the world have experienced at the grocery store in recent months as essential businesses have implemented social distancing policies to reduce the probability of spreading the virus.
Apple is also prioritising customer support during this time in its stores and is encouraging customers to shop online instead when possible.
Apple’s reliance on China, where much of its supply chain is based, has put the tech giant in a unique position when it comes to making decisions regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Its closeness to the situation likely means it’s been watching the COVID-19 crisis closely from the start, as suggested by the moves it’s made in handling the pandemic so far.
For example, Apple closed all of its retail stores outside of greater China days before states in the US began issuing lockdown and stay-at-home orders. The iPhone maker also restricted employee travel to Italy and Korea days before the daily number of new coronavirus cases began to surge in Europe and areas in Asia outside of China.
Apple, along with Starbucks, led the way when it came to reopening locations in China, which could give both brands an advantage according to Danielle Bailey, a managing vice president at market research firm Gartner.
“Both have learned a lot from the experience in China and are definitely exporting and translating as much of that as possible,” she said.
Apple has not yet said when it plans to begin opening stores in the US. The company’s online store and support website have been substituting for its retail stores in the meantime, and Apple has asked some retail employees to take on support and sales roles from home.
“We look forward to soon re-opening more stores so we can provide in-person support to our customers, particularly as many are working and learning from home,” an Apple spokesperson said when asked about when US stores will reopen. “Our team is constantly monitoring local heath data and government guidance and as soon as we can safely open our stores, we will.”
We may not know if new routines and policies like wearing protective face masks and limiting customer capacity in stores will persist for the long term. But what does seem certain, according to Marshal Cohen, chief industry adviser for retail at the market research firm NPD, is that some changes are likely to linger over the next one to two years.
“This is not going to go away so quickly,” Cohen said to Business Insider. “We may not be practicing the things that we should be practicing for a long period of time, but we are going to remember this and we are going to look at things differently than we have in the past.”