Browett's Subtle Message to Apple Retail Employees: Profit First

Apple Retail Stores Profit First

Following last month’s controversy over drastic changes to Apple Retail Stores, Apple Retail Chief John Browett addressed retail employees during the company’s quarterly meeting Sunday night, according to an audio recording obtained by 9to5Mac. 

Speaking to the stores via a video message, Mr. Browett spent most of his three minute speech talking about Apple Retail employees and the “fantastic” service they provide. He also hinted at “improvements” to the stores that will make it easier for employees to “do [their] jobs.”

As I listened to Mr. Browett address his employees, I recognized that this was a well-delivered, but standard retail pep talk. Former Apple Retail Chief Ron Johnson delivered many of them during his career with Apple.

One line, however, caught my interest. Not counting “thank you,” it was the last line that Mr. Browett spoke: “It’s a real privilege to be on board, and I’m really looking forward to the results from Q1.”

With the word “results,” Mr. Browett could have been referring to two completely separate things: customer satisfaction metrics or financial performance. Apple does monitor and strive to improve customer satisfaction but, in light of recent information that indicates that Mr. Browett and Apple CEO Tim Cook are on a mission to improve the financial performance of the Apple Retail stores at the expense of customer service and employee happiness, I think that there was more meaning in Mr. Browett’s closing line than a cursory examination would lead one to believe.

Apple Retail VP John BrowettJohn Browett, Apple SVP of Retail

There is no question that Apple’s initial plan to financially “streamline” its retail stores was a fiasco. But Mr. Browett is a “numbers guy;” it’s why he was an attractive choice for Mr. Cook and Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer. It is doubtful that he will ever fully escape the “profit at all costs” mentality.

Further, if reports that Mr. Cook and Mr. Oppenheimer support Mr. Browett’s initiatives are true, it is unlikely that we have seen the last of cost-cutting measures at the Apple Retail stores.

Could Mr. Browett’s closing line represent a subtle message? “Congratulations, employees, for improving customer satisfaction, but going forward, profit is the primary goal.”

It is a stretch to read so much into a single line, but considering recent developments and the way Mr. Browett conducted business at Dixons, his departing message to his employees may not have been a throwaway.

Apple Retail, despite its resounding success, award-winning service, and priceless contributions to the company’s resurgence over the last decade, may indeed be in the hands of well-intentioned, yet incapable leadership that is intent on squeezing every penny out of the operation.

That alone is arguably a bad sign for the future of the company, but considering that Mr. Browett is not even particularly good at generating profit, the situation is even worse.

As a former Apple Retail employee who worked on both sides of the Genius Bar, we were told from the beginning to do the right thing for the customer. If the customer needed only the entry-level iMac, don’t try to up-sell them to the top-of-the-line model. If their computer could be repaired and still meet their needs, don’t try to talk them into a brand new purchase.

That’s the approach that made the stores, and the Apple experience, successful. To see it threatened is disheartening.

On the other hand, Mr. Browett’s comment about results may simply be a harmless slip; someone so used to worrying solely about financial performance instinctively referred to quarterly results in a speech meant to reassure employees that they're not working for the next Best Buy.

I’m not sure which is worse.

Teaser graphic made with help from Shutterstock.