Apple’s most copied innovation may not be the iPad or the iPhone, so much as its retail stores.There are certain obvious trademarks of an Apple Store like the Genius Bar and the glass facade. But that’s only a small part of what makes an Apple Store unique – or at least what used to make them unique.
“Apple launched a trend towards more open, uncluttered retail stores with a spacious feel and products that can actually be turned on and played with,” said Carmine Gallo, author of The Apple Experience. “That was a big revolution in retailing.”
Gallo says that many big and small companies have since tried to copy these features from Apple’s retail strategy playbook in recent years, some more conspicuously than others. These aren’t just tech companies. Gallo has heard from car companies, toy stores and even hospitals, which are modelling themselves after the Apple Store.
Microsoft hired away Apple's retail executive George Blankenship to help steer its retail store strategy back in 2010. Blankenship was instrumental in the success of Apple's retail stores early on, and according to Gallo, it's easy to spot his and Apple's influence on the dozens of Microsoft stores that have launched since.
'There is no question that Microsoft stores are a direct copy of the Apple Store,' Gallo said. 'Employees wearing brightly coloured shirts stand in front with tablets to sign you in. Microsoft's stores have play areas, while Apple has family rooms, and they even have what look like Genius Bars in the back for technical support.'
Beyond that, Gallo says the design of the stores is clearly inspired by Apple. The front of the Microsoft store is all 'unobstructed glass' with nothing visible other than the Microsoft logo, while the inside is uncluttered with products carefully laid out on 'sparse wooden tables.'
Samsung stores are almost indistinguishable from Apple stores, down to the colour of the shirts its employees wear.
Samsung is the latest tech company to follow in Apple's footsteps. The company opened up its first retail store in North America last week (in Vancouver), after having opened others abroad. The store is a dead ringer for the Apple Store, including everything from the blue-shirted employees roaming the store to the way products are laid out on tables and the walls.
'The Samsung store is just another example of a store copying the design elements of the ultra-successful Apple Retail Store,' Gallo said. Ultimately, though, Gallo says the success of these and other stores will depend on how Samsung trains their retail employees more than how the store looks. 'If employees cannot communicate the benefits of their devices in a way that is clear, concise, and compelling, an open, uncluttered store and brightly coloured shirts become rather meaningless.'
Disney's stores may not look as similar to Apple stores as the Samsung and Microsoft stores do, but according to Gallo, they borrow a key part of the Apple store: the sense of experience and excitement.
Disney's stores offer workshops and events, similar to the Apple Store, as well as multimedia products that customers can interact with while in the store. That might sound like coincidence, except that Disney's executives freely admit to being influenced by Apple's former CEO Steve Jobs. The president of Disney Stores Worldwide told Gallo that Jobs provided him with 'inspiration and support' for their retail store strategy. (It's worth noting that Jobs was the largest shareholder in Disney after it acquired Pixar.)
Steve Jobs also had a big influence on AT&T's retail stores. AT&T decided to overhaul the look and feel of its retail stores back when the iPhone was introduced in 2007. As part of this effort, the company conducted plenty of retail research and even reached out to Jobs for advice. The new AT&T stores are markedly different than the old ones.
'The new stores are very much in the Apple tradition, which means clean windows, open space, uncluttered, and most importantly, those multimedia experiences,' Gallo said. 'All the devices are turned on and they have apps and video on them already.'
Moreover, Gallo says AT&T employees now greet customers within 10 feet of walking into the door, or within 10 seconds of entering the store.
Even Lego stores are trying to be more like the Apple Store. According to Gallo, Lego has borrowed the idea of having in-store workshops and display areas similar to Apple's Family Rooms, where kids can play around with the products.
'I walked into a Lego store that was right next to an Apple store, and one of the managers told me it's not a coincidence that Lego stores in most malls try to be close to an Apple store because they try to replicate the same experience,' Gallo said.
Best Buy is testing out a couple new stores that mimic the design of the Apple Store, with less clutter and a Genius-style help desk.
Best Buy recently opened up a couple test stores that have a sleeker feel, fewer products on display and a new help desk in the back that looks remarkably similar to the Genius Bar. While these stores are just prototypes, Best Buy's CEO has indicated they are just the start of the company's 'catch-up' move, suggesting we will see more of these stores going forward.
'Best Buy is beginning to figure out what Steve Jobs knew in 2001: People want more than a store. They want a location where they can feel good about themselves and learn something new,' Gallo said.
JCPenney is still in the process of redesigning its stores, but according to Gallo, it's clear the company is pulling from Apple's retail playbook. That shouldn't come as too much of surprise considering that JCPenney poached the person who wrote that playbook, Ron Johnson, Apple's former head of retail.
'It's still very early on, but I think Ron Johnson is looking to replicate the experience factor, rather than just selling products,' Gallo said. 'He is the experience master after all.'
It might sound strange, but Gallo says Apple's biggest retail influence wasn't a retail store, but a hotel chain: the Ritz Carlton.
Apple copied at least two big concepts from the Ritz, the most obvious of which is the Genius Bar, based on the hotel's concierge station. 'Ron Johnson's team came back from the Ritz Carlton and that's when he said, 'We should have a bar just like the Ritz where people can gather and get more information,'' Gallo said.
The other concept Apple copied was the hotel's employee training program. As Gallo describes it, the Ritz deliberately empower its employees to use their judgment to do what's right for customers, rather than having to answer to a manager. For this reason, Apple's retail employees - like employees of the Ritz - may spend 30 minutes helping you in the store without feeling pressure from a manager to make a sale or move on to another customer.