Ron Johnson at Apple store opening

Former Apple Senior Vice President of Retail (then ousted JCPenney CEO) Ron Johnson made a somewhat rare public-facing appearance on Andreessen Horowitz’s podcast. The discussion comes in at just under half an hour and features the former head of Apple Retail discussing his experience with leading the Apple Store as well as the challenge for up-and-coming startup brands to afford brick-and-mortar retail channels, but more interesting from an Apple perspective is Johnson’s praise for Microsoft’s retail stores and the Surface 3 tablet that the company heavily markets against Apple’s MacBook Air.

“I think the Microsoft stores have succeeded much more than popular opinion. […] I think it’s really helped, for instance, the Surface 3. It’s a really great product and we all know that. Everyone who has tried a Surface 3 is pretty blown away with the software, the interaction, how it can be a tablet and a computer, its part of the future. Without those stores that Surface 3 wouldn’t be where it is today.”

The former Apple Retail SVP went on to say that comparing Microsoft’s retail stores with Apple’s own retail presence is like comparing two different restaurants by the crowd alone.

Aside from offering kudos to Microsoft’s retail approach and iPad/MacBook Air competitor, Johnson did talk about the challenge startup brands face with expensive retail channels and getting products in front of customers.

In today’s world, which is multichannel, unfortunately we’re in a period where stores will become increasingly less important in the total distribution mix. The world is moving online. It’s moving online more rapidly than I think a lot of us imagined, a lot more than I did, and so the challenge for a startup is given that physical retail is expensive and knowing that it’ll be less important to your mix long term, what’s the right mix? How does it compliment your brand, and what’s the role of that in your mix?

Johnson related this back to Apple’s own experience in retail describing Apple’s challenge with 3% marketshare at a time when no one could try products. Johnson added that Apple hasn’t had a bad product launch since Apple’s retail presence started due to the hands-on experience retail stores create. The conversation didn’t go without hinting at the upcoming iPhone 6 event:

If Apple comes out with a new product on September 9th, you can guarantee those stores will be filled with people trying to touch it, try it, see what it’s all about, and that’s a critical asset for Apple and its distribution system. It enables their creativity of a chance to be heard by the marketplace.

Ron Johnson, of course, was tapped to run the Apple Retail Store chain when it debuted in 2001 until 2011 when he announced his retirement from Apple to take the CEO role at retailer JCPenney. Johnson was eventually replaced by John Browett, who had a short run at Apple. Then Johnson himself had a relatively short run at the clothing retailer being fired after Browett. Johnson, of course, did not return to Apple, though, as Angela Ahrendts left her role as CEO of Burberry to take the reigns.

As for Ron Johnson’s appearance on a16z’s podcast, you can catch the full interview here.


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About the Author

Zac Hall

Zac covers Apple news, hosts the 9to5Mac Happy Hour podcast, and created