I found myself thinking about Apple Stores the other day...
It turns out I know a bit about audio and it occurred to me that I should ask for help in selecting audio gear for a household that has iPhones and iPads given how many manufacturers have entered the market. How would they steer me? As there are 11 Apple Stores in NJ and several in Manhattan I would have a chance to get a reasonable sample. So I went in asking the questions of an average consumer who doesn’t know much about audio ... five stores in about a week and very similar answers at each.
All of them, despite the large number of customers, took their time with me and four of them pointed me to the resident expert who knows about audio. All of them gave an answer that would give me minimal configuration grief, good enough sound quality given my tastes, and a reasonable cost to fit my budget. In fact three of the audio experts gave excellent advice that would save money encouraging buying kit not in the store.
Very different answers than I would have heard at a big box store, a Bose mall store or a dedicated audio shop. What I got was a pragmatic answer with several viable options.1
Something you couldn’t get at Amazon either as there is far too much noise in the recommendations.
Something is working.
When I first visited an Apple Store in the early days (my first purchase was the original iPod on the day they were released), it was a place where Mac fans gathered. Sort of a clubhouse where people went to talk. The first visit saw me purchase the iPod, but I hung around chatting with other customers and employees enjoying cookies and fruit juice provided by the store.
Over the years the cookies and fruit juice disappeared and were replaced by increasing numbers of non-Mac customers. Curiously those of us who knew something about Macs or iPods would give advice to other people who were waiting for a clerk or just looking. Showing up a few hours early to buy a new version of OS X or the latest iPhone was a fun experience. The place was incredibly social.
Some of the stores developed reputations. Since you could use available Macs for anything as long as you weren’t getting in the way, students would use expensive software to get work done. It was common to see teens working on video and music projects after school often with help from the store clerks. The stores started hiring software specialists.
The SoHo store in Manhattan developed a reputation as one of the best places to pick up dates for awhile and people in their twenties made trips just to hang around. A few of the stores, including that one, began to offer live music nights as a part of promoting iTunes music.
There has been a constant evolution within the stores, but there is a strong link between the functionality of the product and making the customer happy. You generally have just enough choices to consider and helpful people - employees or other customers - to guide you through the choices. Pricing tends to be stable so you don’t have to worry about wading through another layer of information. There is some of it that feels very much like Trader Joe’s. 2
And now Ron Johnson, the guy who was responsible for Apple Stores, is running JC Penny and they have begun to announce their changes. Many companies just redesign logos and shuffle management, but I suspect Johnson will go far beyond the new logo and simplified pricing they've announced.
Department store retail is as broken as computer stores were and much can be done. It made me wonder about areas that are ripe for change and what that change might be. This certainly isn’t advice for Mr Johnson as he has undoubtedly spent a lot of time thinking wrestling with the issues and is a proven expert in retail change, but it is interesting to think through this sort of thing as it will differ widely across companies. What would you change and what changes would you make in your company or companies you regularly deal with?
JC Penny sells a lot of clothing. Women are primary customers and there is a lot of research, including my own, that shows the shopping experience is far from optimal. Sizing is broken, selection is often broken, there is a need for information on what looks good on a person, getting good clerks is often difficult, pricing is confusing and so on...
At the same time apparel is a large part of the economy and we all need clothes. Fashion can be very enjoyable to many as can be an artistic expression and enhancement of self - amplifying good features and hiding the less than good - and is a form of social communication.
I spent some time talking with Sukie and some female friends about this and adding my own thoughts. So in addition to things like lining up the right brands for the customers and other normal approaches here are a few thoughts from the peanut gallery. The caveat is obvious if you've ever seen my clothing, but Sukie and some friends have excellent fashion taste and I listen well.
° Attack the sizing issue
This will take a long time to get right, but a good start would be to match someone up with clothing that is likely to fit and to concentrate the selection. Since different lines have roughly consistent sizing within the line it might be possible to take someone’s measurements as well as a list of clothing that mostly fits and make predictions. If the store is made of of small regions each of which represents a different line, the shopper could then visit areas with much higher probabilities of finding a fit.
Have some tailors on hand and take a complete set of measurements a few times a year as part of the experience. This can be kept on file and used to match people directly with the clothing. A database of preferences can also be assembled and folded in with current street fashion information.
There can be expert advice from the tailors as well as from street fashion experts - sort of a genius bar for fashion.
° Get social locally, nationally and internationally
Understand Pinterest. Have staff members who understand street fashion and get involved in it. Be able to help customers get social advice and feedback from the segments of the population they want their fashion to communicate with. You don’t need experts in each branch of fashion at every store, but you might have someone who can bring in these people on video chats.
Create social fashion places on the web that the customers can be part of. Pinterest is a much better potential partner than FaceBook or Google and it may make sense to have a dedicated site if it can be scaled, but getting customer involvement would be a big thing.
Encourage expert street fashion bloggers in different regions. What is going on in Manhattan vs Chicago? It would be difficult to find people at the Bill Cunningham level, but they are extremely important.
° Teach people more about creating their own look.
Seminars in store and online. Don’t worry about bringing in third parties - you might tell someone she would be terrific with something from Etsy for example. Involve some of your customers in this as advisors and teachers. Create a Fashion U. Give several levels of interest reason to visit at least once a month.
Recognize that fashion can and should be very personal. It is much more rewarding for the wearer if she participates in the act. That may be putting a wardrobe together completely from store purchased pieces or it may be more customized than that, but the final result can be special and may even be unique. Fashion is meant to be an ephemeral expression and the creativity and participation of the wearer must be considered and respected. You are not merely selling clothing, you are providing the raw materials of expression. Perhaps the best service you can provide is to figure out how to enable her craft. How does she collaborate, what inspires her and how does she create?
In many ways this may have come under the "get social" bullet
° Curate collections - emulate Trader Joe’s
Give customers concentrated selections of what they are likely to want. This may be very regional and street fashion may inform you better than the ready-to-wear Fashion Week designers. Channel Bill Cunningham locally.
° Improve the fitting experience
Solve issues of fitting and understanding what clothing will look like you under different lighting and with other types of clothing. There are several technical solutions ranging from trivial to leading edge. There is great opportunity to innovate and lead.
° Work towards the future - mass customization/made-to-measure
Move towards manufacturing made-to-measure clothing. Even if you are matching people more closely with clothing there is still a frustration that not all interesting choices can be made to fit or are in the right color or style. Reasonably priced made-to-measure is the disruptive future. You can lead.
There are many other departments within Penny’s, but better apparel solutions would make a huge dent in the problem. Beyond fair and square pricing and store design and functionality it will be fascinating to see where Johnson goes.3
How would you change a telco? a movie company? a restaurant chain? ... your company?
1 Drop a note if you are interested in comments and suggestions on inexpensive and low hassle room stereo solutions for AirPlay enabled devices. It was fascinating hearing what the Apple Store employees said and squaring that with my own recommendations.
2 If you are a fan of the store you know what I mean. They do many things correctly and don't follow. It certainly wouldn't hurt to have Trader Joes's or Apple Store calliber employees. This part of the TJ's Fortune link is telling:
... "In the early days we never tried to be the neighborhood store," says a former employee. They didn't have to: Trader Joe's was the neighborhood store. And yet walk into the Chelsea location on a busy weekday night and you'll see something you almost never see in Manhattan: strangers chatting with one another. Veteran customers tell newbies what products they absolutely have to try, and serious cooks share tips on how to spike sauces and semi-prepared foods to make them even tastier.
3 Some good information from the horse's mouth here