One of the things Apple’s retail head Angela Ahrendts said in her interview with Fast Company‘s Rick Tetzei is that Apple had made the decision to back away from Black Friday sales because “being good to your employees will always be good for business.”
Rather than extending store hours for Black Friday events, or just turning the stores into even more crowded places during what has increasingly turned into Black November rather than just Black Friday, Ahrendts decided to give staff a break. That’s great and should be applauded but why not just do an online sale? Do the computers need the time off too?
Even more curious, Apple, who controls US retailer pricing, seems to be letting every US retailer knock huge amounts off of all Apple products for Black Friday…
It’s not as if Apple has ever indulged in Black Friday in a big way. Pretty much what it did was extend educational pricing to everyone, which amounted to a typical discount of around 10%. Nice, but not dramatic. It went a little further on third-party accessories, discounting these by 15-20%, but again nothing like the kind of deals available on other products.
The problem for Apple bargain hunters was you couldn’t do much better elsewhere – especially on iOS devices. Apple reportedly offered retailers such slim margins on its products, sometimes as low as two or three percent, that other stores had little room for manoeuvre.
This, however, appears to be changing. My colleagues on 9to5Toys have been regularly spotting decent discounts on iPads beginning soon after a new model is launched, and we’re already seeing some early and heavy discounting on Apple products – including the Apple Watch. Some of it could be retailers running loss-leaders to get people in the doors, but the longer-term discounting seen suggests that it’s more likely to be Apple offering better margins to facilitate such offers.
Which is a tactic I think makes a lot of sense. Apple’s vision for its retail stores is for them to be calm and peaceful places where you can play with the products, get advice from staff and assistance with existing products. The reality in the bigger Apple Stores at peak times is very far removed from this – packed with so many people you can scarcely move, let alone get a decent chunk of time to play with a product or have a relaxed conversation with a member of staff. The very last thing Apple wants to do is bring in hordes of bargain hunters to make the situation worse.
Even without Black November, however, Apple remains a victim of its own success in terms of the retail experience. It’s rolling out new stores all the time, many cities now having multiple outlets, but is still struggling to cope. Which is why I think Ahrendts’ vision is about moving the retail stores to more of a showroom experience, with as much of the purchasing as possible driven online. Jony Ives’ redesign of the stores also seems to give them more of a showroom type feel.
We saw this showroom approach with the Apple Watch, of course. Rather than have the crazy launch-day store experience we see with iPhones, Apple initially made the decision to offer try-ons and demonstrations in store, then to direct customers to make their purchases online. In other words, to have the Apple Store act as a showroom.
But the other thing we saw then, and which impressed me at the time, was the degree of integration between the offline and online worlds. As I wrote then:
I waited there all of ten seconds before I was taken to meet the man who would be handling my try-on. When he pulled up my appointment on his terminal, he could see the two watches I had favorited on the Apple website, and immediately pulled the first of these out of the drawer: the stainless steel with black classic buckle.
I was instantly impressed. It had always previously felt like the retail stores and online store were entirely separate worlds, but here the two were seamlessly integrated.
This is the type of experience Ahrendts had previously been working to deliver in her previous role as Burberry CEO, her vision then of a retail future that completely blurred the lines between the physical and digital environments.
We’ve also seen greater integration on Apple’s website. Previously, you used the main site to learn about products, then went to the separate online store section to buy something. Now, there’s just one site, with a Buy option for each product – something that already seems so natural it’s hard to imagine why Apple would ever have done it any other way.
Ahrendts’ vision for Burberry went further, with things like chip-enabled products that would display information about themselves in a mirror when you tried them on, and ‘magical trays’ that would play a product video as soon as you picked them up.
Of course, Apple has one huge advantage over Burberry: its products can already introduce themselves – and we’ve already seen one in-store change to reflect this. Out went the old companion iPad-based Smart Signs and in came apps running on the demo products themselves. That reduced clutter and allowed room for more people to play with products – which helps reduce crowding as fewer people are waiting to have their play.
We’re not seeing a complete transition of the Apple Store experience. I think Apple sees the launch day queues for the iPhone as too good a PR coup to pass up. But I do think we’ll see further moves toward Apple Stores being less geared to immediate sales – and that Black Friday bargain hunters will need to continue to look elsewhere.
Dan DeSilva kindly contributed to this piece.