Photo: Daniel Goodman / Business Insider
This blog post is part of the HBR Online Forum The Future of Retail.When I announced that I was leaving Apple to take the reins as CEO of J.C. Penney this month, the business press (and lots of others) began speculating about whether I could replicate the Apple Store’s success in such a dramatically different retail setting.
One of the most common comments I heard was that the Apple Store succeeded because it carried Apple products and catered to the brand’s famously passionate customers. Well, yes, Apple products do pull people into stores. But you don’t need to stock iPads to create an irresistible retail environment. You have to create a store that’s more than a store to people.
Think about this: Any store has to provide products people want to buy. That’s a given. But if Apple products were the key to the Stores’ success, how do you explain the fact that people flock to the stores to buy Apple products at full price when Wal-Mart, Best-Buy, and Target carry most of them, often discounted in various ways, and Amazon carries them all — and doesn’t charge sales tax!
People come to the Apple Store for the experience — and they’re willing to pay a premium for that. There are lots of components to that experience, but maybe the most important — and this is something that can translate to any retailer — is that the staff isn’t focused on selling stuff, it’s focused on building relationships and trying to make people’s lives better. That may sound hokey, but it’s true. The staff is exceptionally well trained, and they’re not on commission, so it makes no difference to them if they sell you an expensive new computer or help you make your old one run better so you’re happy with it. Their job is to figure out what you need and help you get it, even if it’s a product Apple doesn’t carry. Compare that with other retailers where the emphasis is on cross-selling and upselling and, basically, encouraging customers to buy more, even if they don’t want or need it. That doesn’t enrich their lives, and it doesn’t deepen the retailer’s relationship with them. It just makes their wallets lighter.
So the challenge for retailers isn’t “how do we mimic the Apple Store” or any other store that seems like a good model. It’s a very different problem, one that’s conceptually similar to what Steve Jobs faced with the iPhone. He didn’t ask, “How do we build a phone that can achieve a two per cent market share?” He asked, “How do we reinvent the telephone?” In the same way, retailers shouldn’t be asking, “How do we create a store that’s going to do $15 million a year?” They should be asking, “How do we reinvent the store to enrich our customers’ lives?”
It’s not easy, of course. People forget that the Apple Store encountered some bumps along the way. No one came to the Genius Bar during the first years. We even had Evian water in refrigerators for customers to try to get them to sit down and spend time at the bar. But we stuck with it because we knew that face-to-face support was the very best way to help customers. Three years after the Genius Bar launched, it was so popular we had to set up a reservation system.
There isn’t one solution. Each retailer will need to find its own unique formula. But I can say with confidence that the retailers that win the future are the ones that start from scratch and figure out how to create fundamentally new types of value for customers.
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