Apple is building its next great retail store in your living room. Have you seen the plans? Accelerated by the pandemic, Apple has created new platforms, polished existing services, and renewed its online retail efforts to create a home ecosystem just as immersive and memorable as its in-store experience. There’s just one catch: you’ll need to bring the tables.

“Everything you love about our stores is online,” Apple said last May when it launched a new hub for the Apple Store Online. Easy to dismiss as astute marketing copy, the line simply and profoundly stated Apple’s intentions for the future of shopping.

Far from closing physical stores, Apple recognizes that both in-person and virtual experiences provide unique value to customers. Its brick and mortar stores, now numbering 512 worldwide, are tourist destinations, landmark historic preservation projects, and architectural marvels. They’re places where customers connect with Apple at a deeper level.

For the millions of customers who don’t live near an Apple Store, immersive online experiences can create similar connections. The Apple Store Online and Apple Retail Stores now function as deeply integrated parallel services that offer more people more options for product discovery, education, and support. But it didn’t happen overnight.

A screenshot of the Apple Store Online.
The new Apple Store Online design.

Until recently, the Apple Store Online was simply that: a nice web portal for purchasing Apple products. That’s more than many retailers can say. Although highly convenient, shopping at home is often a flimsy and watered-down approximation of visiting a store in person. Apple’s efforts to create a more personal commerce at home platform began before the pandemic and significantly accelerated over the past year.

For almost every service available in person, Apple has now delivered a convenient online counterpart without most of the compromise typically associated with shopping at home. These services move beyond static webpages and offer dynamic, human experiences. Because the physical and digital stores operate on the same frequency, customers can choose à la carte which parts of the experience they want in-store and which parts are most efficient online.

Comparison: Apple Retail Store and Apple Store Online services

Education is a pillar of Apple Retail, and bringing creative content online with a human connection is a significant ongoing project. Since 2020, Today at Apple has become the powerhouse of Apple’s online efforts. Through collaborative Webex sessions, YouTube videos, and now in-app GarageBand sessions, Apple is bringing the smiling faces of Creative Pros into your home.

A Creative Pro hosts a GarageBand Remix Today at Apple session.
An Apple Creative Pro hosts a Remix Session in GarageBand.

Today at Apple virtual sessions are hosted by the same teams hosting in-store programming, so dropping in at home to build a GarageBand remix feels just like connecting at the store. (You might even see the same faces!) Apple also offers Online Personal Sessions to help you set up your device and has recently experimented with Apple Support tutorials filmed right inside Apple Stores.

Another piece of the home experience more fully realized since the start of the pandemic is delivery, which encompasses everything from receiving a product at your door to setting it up. Two-hour, courier-enabled “Instant Delivery” is now promoted by Apple as a fast and easy way to get connected. Most promising is Apple’s partnership with Enjoy, the mobile retail store startup. Apple and Enjoy offer Delivery with Setup by an expert in your home. Founder Ron Johnson recently announced the service is now available in more markets including Chicago, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Atlanta.

Apple and Enjoy offer Delivery with Setup for your new devices.
Apple and Enjoy offer Delivery with Setup for your new devices.

Online chat and phone options, both for sales with a Specialist and Genius help through Apple Support, are emphasized more than ever with callouts on store webpages and featured cards on the redesigned webpage, which debuted last week. Over the past year, Apple’s Retail at Home program has grown with more work from home opportunities for store teams to support customers during the pandemic. Apple began offering free sign language support from interpreters in-store and later rolled out SignTime, a parallel online service to connect customers anywhere with interpreters.

A screenshot of the SignTime interface on Apple's website.

So what’s next?

With leading home platforms for customer support, delivery, education, and personalization, the focus returns to the product discovery and purchase experience. The fundamentals of browsing and buying Apple products online remain much as they were in the earliest days of the Apple Store Online.

In the same way Apple Store Creative Pros form a human connection online during Today at Apple virtual sessions, Apple Store Specialists could provide personal product recommendations and expert buying advice through Shop with a Specialist appointments hosted online. More engaging than a chat or phone call, connecting with a team member face to face enables the same purchase experience possible in a physical store.

An Apple Specialist at Apple Park Visitor Center explains how to trade in your iPhone.
An Apple Specialist at Apple Park Visitor Center explains how to trade in your iPhone.

Product discovery, too, could be augmented by Apple Specialists who can demonstrate contextually relevant features in a dynamic way that static image galleries and prerecorded videos cannot. We’ve already seen Apple iterate on product discovery with AR models of new devices you can experience on an iPhone or iPad. By integrating technologies like augmented reality and personal shopping into the everyday buying experience, Apple can create an online store journey that makes customers feel as confident in their purchase as they would after an Apple Store visit.

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About the Author

Michael Steeber

Michael is a Creative Editor who covered Apple Retail and design on 9to5Mac. His stories highlighted the work of talented artists, designers, and customers through a unique lens of architecture, creativity, and community.

Contact Michael on Twitter to share Apple Retail, design, and history stories: @MichaelSteeber