I’ve been reading countless blog posts and op-eds about the legacy of Steve Jobs, good, bad, or ugly. Most have focused on his life, his relentless demand for precision and excellence, and his innovative genius. I have yet another view; the elite format of retailing his Apple stores have provided around the world. Against the backdrop of cookie-cutter, discount, and even up-market branded retailing environments, the Apple stores are brightly shining pearls in a sea of dirty shells.
Birth of an Icon
In 2001, the first two Apple store opened simultaneously in Tysons Corner, Virginia and Glendale, California. As the stores expanded across the country, they became more and more refined, until the comprehensive design, inside and out, became a mirror for Apple’s products themselves. Apple’s passion for crafting the finest consumer electronic art objects finally flowed into the architecture of its retailing brand, both in form, and function.
If you’ve never been to an Apple store, or even if you have, do this the next time you go: take a careful look at the building itself. The walls. The floors and ceilings. The doors and glazing. The lighting. The furniture. The signage. Take your time, and really study these elements. The entire building has been constructed as a finely tuned precision art object, whose function is not only to sell Apple merchandise, but to tangibly represent all that Apple, and Steve Jobs, stands for. Since I’m from Chicago, I’ll use the hallowed Michigan Avenue store as an example. It is a 2-story pristine silver box with a green roof and large skylight running the length of the store.
So much more than “Bricks and Mortar”
The inside features an open floor plan with a staircase made entirely of glass connecting the 2 levels in a central atrium beneath the skylight. Everything has a place, and everything is in its place. There are no curves in this minimalist box, save for the large Apple logo carved out of the front façade. There are no mullions in the glazing, and no visible hardware or structural connections anywhere on the smooth paneled exterior. And the panels are just about perfect; the typical tolerances that exist in the construction industry simply don’t apply to an Apple store. Their tolerances are, well, none. The form of an Apple store is like that of any recent Apple product: brutally minimalist, simple to understand, and a joy to consume.
Functionally, the Apple store offers a different retailing experience than anywhere else I can think of. Since Apple’s “easy pay” system debuted in 2006, there are no check-out lines at Apple. There are no cash-registers, or carts to hold your goods. Apple’s lust-worthy consumables are displayed on simple (but beautiful) wood tables where you can interact with them until you’ve convinced yourself you “cannot live without one of these”, and then you simply engage an Apple employee on the spot and make your purchase right there. Simple, easy. Just like their products. They even created places in their stores that share names with product features, such as the “Genius Bar” (co-named with the iTunes “Genius” feature). As in their form, the way in which Apple stores function is no less a mirror of their products.
For Apple, Less really is More
These retailing innovations, these rigorous pursuit of perfection, these beautifully pristine architectural gems, are each the result of Steve Jobs refusal to settle for anything less than a full-on Apple assult of all our senses. He’s got all 5 covered: seeing (Apple’s places and products are simply beautiful, even if you’re a ‘traditionalist’…), hearing (iTunes and the iPod have forever changed the way music is bought, sold, and listened to…), touching (all the finishes on my new iPad 2 are just perfect…), smelling (next time you visit an Apple store, take a whiff…the air is scented too…), and well, taste. The name of the company is, after all, Apple. Even our fruit bowls remind of the simple convenience Apple products provide us.
Believe it or not, even the really bad, ugly buildings in our cities and towns take a lot of hard work to produce, and by comparison the Apple stores are nothing short of architectural miracles. Comparing an Apple store to any other is kind of like comparing a MacBook Pro to, well, any other laptop out there. Both can get the job done, but we’d all rather shop at the Apple store, wouldn’t we. Thanks Steve, for really beautifying the retail experience.
Where is your favorite Apple store?