Conspiracy Theories About the Departure of Apple’s Angela Ahrendts

Lots of articles are trying to put together a collective, coherent theory about why SVP Angela Ahrendts is leaving Apple. I want to delve into that and see what shakes out.

Angela Ahrendts
Image credit: Apple

Perhaps the best of the lot to open with comes from The Street where Annie Gaus ponders a report from eMarketer analyst Andrew Lipsman. “Here’s What’s Next for Apple’s Retail Empire as a Veteran Takes the Reins.

But before I dig into that article, it’s important to remember that Apple senior executives define the features and pricing of Apple products. Then it’s up to the sales executives and their subordinates to create a successful sales strategy. This tendency to blame the sales team alone for sales failures has been a hallmark of Apple thinking for a long time.

Retail Store Design

Apple Store Park Meadows
Crowding that was once considered good is now an issue.

Continuing…. In the report from The Street, there’s a discussion about the evolution of Apple retail stores under SVP Ahrendts. There’s an overview of how she guided the direction and design of the retail stores.

In Apple’s case, that idea, driven by Ahrendts, has manifested in a number of ways. Apple stores nowadays serve as much more than a place to pick up your next iPhone or MacBook. Many offer a host of complementary services, Lipsman added, which can include not just customer service but free classes in photography, video, coding and other skills. Some of the larger stores (such as the flagship Apple Store in San Francisco) even host concerts and other creative events at the lush and eye-catching downtown location.

And yet, between the lines, there’s the question of whether the atmosphere of a bustling, luxury store did what it needed to do to create enduring demand for iPhones, especially in China.

One symptom of problems in the store is crowding and getting sufficient quality time with an Apple salesperson. At 9to5Mac Ben Lovejoy digs into this part of the problem. “Opinion: Apple’s new retail head needs to fix the biggest problem with Apple Stores.

But there’s one big problem that afflicts almost every Apple Store I’ve ever visited: the horrendous over-crowding.

The design and lack of sales pressure should make Apple’s retail stores pleasant places to visit. But the crazy busy-ness of them makes a store visit instead something of an ordeal.

I’ve seen this myself at a local Apple store. On Saturdays, the line just to get properly guided by the concierge at the entrance is usually long and intimidating. The trappings of great success lead to many, many people needing help. A pleasant, relaxing place to make inquiries and make a purchase decision doesn’t seem part of the design.

Author Lovejoy offers some possible solutions. But the real issue is whether Apple’s executive team thinks that, somehow, the conduct of store operations, alone, led to a decline in iPhone sales.

Apple iPhone XS
Apple’s iPhone XS lineup. They will cost you.

Customer Reaction to Expensive iPhones

Store design may or may not be the sole culprit. Back in January, author Gaus also wrote: “Longer iPhone Upgrade Cycles Are a Growing Problem for Apple.” That goes to pricing, not the in-store experience. CEO Tim Cook’s letter to investors in January tells that story.

But Cook also hinted at a trend that’s been on the rise for years in the smartphone industry: People just aren’t upgrading their phones as frequently as they once did. In the letter, Cook wrote that “in some developed markets, iPhone upgrades also were not as strong as we thought they would be,” and cited factors like fewer carrier subsidies and high prices tied to the strength of the U.S. dollar.

The Motley Fool, punctuates that part of the issue.

It’s unfair to blame Ahrendts for Apple’s recent problems, which were mainly caused by poor innovation, design choices, and pricing strategies.

Learning from Car Dealerships

But maybe that goes too easy on Ahrendts. The crowding issue has come to a boil. It relates to the disconnect between Apple’s store architectural design, status as a luxury brand, iPhone pricing and store crowding thanks, in part, to all those ancillary activities and classes mentioned above combined with customers in need of service. In exploring that, I found some good insight….

CNN cites Jason Goldberg, head of the commerce practice at digital agency SapientRazorfish. “Apple needs a new retail strategy.

But wait times for Apple’s Genius Bar are often long and stores are overcrowded. Goldberg believes Apple should take a lesson from car dealerships, which separated their showrooms from service departments many years ago.

“Apple will probably have to move in that direction too,” [Goldberg] said.

Steering the Ship

Again, this goes to the design of operations in the retail stores, something SVP Ahrendts is being held accountable for. Whether the new SVP of Retail + People, Deirdre O’Brien, moves in this direction will be interesting to watch. It would be a huge challenge.

In the final analysis, many factors have played a role in Apple’s recent iPhone sales woes. But Apple’s most senior executives aren’t going to fire themselves, so there has to be a starting point. Fix the problems they themselves can control and also fix the retail experience by country, as needed.

There’s a lot of work to be done.


Particle Debris is a generally a mix of John Martellaro’s observations and opinions about a standout event or article of the week followed by a discussion of articles that didn’t make the TMO headlines, the technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holiday weeks.

6 thoughts on “Conspiracy Theories About the Departure of Apple’s Angela Ahrendts

  • Somehow amazingly no one noticed these problems until she left? And no one noticed that the crowding is exacerbated and made more miserable by her getting rid of the genius bar and complicating the logistics of the store, making people go on hunt-go-seek missions of where to sit and geniuses to find them. All interspersed with normal customers there to buy things, are toxic customers with something wrong, sharing those problems.

    She took a clean and efficient design where people knew where to go to find help, and the help could easily corral people that need help away form new customers, and turned it into chaos pie fight. She turned the best customer experience into the DMV.

    And just as it’s time to deal with this difficulty, poof, she’s gone. So it’s either when the going got tough, she got going, or someone fired her. Personally I’m hoping she got fired because at least it evinces some good judgement for a job poorly done. Good riddance.

    That said, having the HR person magically become the head of retail is insanity. They need to bring Ron Johnson back. He’s available, he created and made those stores amazing.

    1. Can’t comment too much on the Apple Stores. there STILL isn’t one near me, though there’s three quarters of a million people here, with most between Nanaimo and Victoria.
      I do agree though about choosing the HR manager to run retail. Managers are not interchangeable. Just because she has experience with Apple, some 30 years as I understand, does not mean she knows how to run retail. Seems to me that she’s a placeholder, until they find someone else.

  • But there’s one big problem that afflicts almost every Apple Store I’ve ever visited: the horrendous over-crowding.

    Fortunately I can usually visit an Apple Store mornings on weekday.

  • Let’s be fair, there isn’t a iPhone sales wows, every single region has beaten Apple’s own internal expectation, apart from China and Japan. Japan had more iPhone 8 sold mainly because they don’t like notch, and they prefer smaller phones. iPhone XS Max are catered towards the Japanese gaming group, which there are less of. And there are already enough explanation with China.

    I also don’t see a pricing problem, 5G is expected to be expensive, When other Android maker are aiming at $799+ 5G phones, what’s wrong with Apple’s selling at $1099? Tim did mention the pricing of due to exchange rate and region, which is major problem. Apple is the only manufacturer that does simple US pricing * exchange rate + VAT + Import for foreign market. Most other company price their product differently, taking VAT and import tax into account.

    So none of these are Angela’s fault, there is however one point that is definitely her responsibility, the opening of Apple Stores.

    Apple had ~430 Stores in 2014, ~460 in 2015. All these are likely well planned before her Arrival. As of today, Apple has ~510 Stores, so over the 4+ years, she managed to open less than 60 stores, a slow down of 50 to 70% YoY compared to all previous years. And yet Apple manage to grow from 800M Active Devices to now 1.4B Active Devices, that is 600M increase.

    Apple had 300+ Stores opened during their last 600M Active Devices, now they had less than a 100.

    Apple needs 1000 Stores, they are going to approach 1B iPhone users sometime in 2020.

  • The local Apple store here is always crowded, often with a line of people waiting to get in before the store opens. And it’s one of Apple’s small, tiny stores. If they’re getting that much foot traffic they should make it bigger if only to hold more paying customers 😉

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