The Real Reason Apple Retail Stores Flourish

One of the classic Steve Jobs videos is his introduction to the first Apple retail store in Tyson's Corner, Virgina in 2001. In that legendary video, Mr. Jobs lays out his vision for what those stores would do for customers. Because other similar stores had failed, pundits assumed the Apple store would as well. Here are my observations why Apple flourished.

The retail business is tricky, especially so in the age of Amazon, point and click (or tap), wish lists and free two-day delivery. (Amazon Prime.) However, one must remember that there is a class of products that need some customer care and feeding (as with computers and smartphones) and there are light bulbs and laundry detergent.

The genius of Steve Jobs was to recognize that the business of retail computers wasn't just about sales. Instead, it was about making great products and then providing an awesome purchase and support experience. Computers aren't perfect and no human being knows everything. And so a friendly place to buy, learn, congregate and occasionally get a computer (or iPad or iPhone nowadays) working again is an oasis in a sea of merchants trying to sell ho-hum, complex products to confused customers and all the while trying to squeeze pennies from a stone.

That marriage of simplicity and elegance that Mr. Jobs imagined comes at a price. When a company makes the very best, it can justify charging a premium. Where the Apple retail stores fit in was a happy marriage of consumate customer assistance and the low perceived level of complexity of the product.

When those two concepts merge, the retail experience becomes a booming success. I think of it like this.

The upper left section, when the product is premium, the assistance is high, and the perceived level of complexity is low, is what I call the region of success. Nordstrom understands this. Coach and Brooks Brothers understand it too. They also reside in the upper left section.

On the bottom right is the region of death. The perceived complexity of the products is high (PCs, routers, etc.) and the genuine customer service is minimal. That's how CompUSA failed. Plus, salespeople were looking out for themselves, not the customer, via spiffs.

The other regions can be successful and muddle along with varying profit margins, but they're not going to be beloved. They're an essential part of life. Mundane on the lower left, confusing, wearying and expensive on the upper right.

In the video above, Steve Jobs not only tapped into the desirability of that easy to use iMac, he also touched on themes that are fundamental to family and life: "Music, movies, photos and kids (education)." So not only did these stores sell products, they tapped into the pulse of American digital life.

A final design element that makes these stores so compelling is that the layout invites customers to come in and hang out. While some stores are just stacks and shelves, the architectural design of the Apple stores makes them both landmarks and pleasant places to be. This trend is getting even stronger in the new designs, starting with Apple's flagship store in San Francisco this week. See: "Apple Stores get major makeover."

Image credit: Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

Apple's retail stores may have changed in some ways over the years. The online app stores have eliminated the need for boxes of software with a CD inside.  The now iconic wooden tables were introduced. But the combination of enthusiasm for the product and enthusiasm for just being there remains unmatched.

My colleague Bryan Chaffin made this observation about the Steve Jobs video above. "We often look back, but Steve Jobs never did."