Tim, We Need to Talk About John Browett

Browett Mess Up Apple Retail

Dear Tim Cook,

By now you know we’re all aware that something went wrong with Apple Retail in the last week. On Monday, MacRumors reported receiving tips from Apple Retail employees in the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada that stores were experiencing layoffs and significant cutbacks in working hours.

The Mac Observer checked with sources in United States and found that, at least in the markets that were surveyed, there were no serious disruptions. However, reports kept coming in from the United Kingdom and MacRumors continued to receive tips about U.S. and Canadian stores that were experiencing unusual workforce reductions.

Cut to Thursday morning and the news hits that Apple Retail chief John Browett emailed Apple Retail Store leadership with a mea culpa. From the Dow Jones Newswire:

In a communication with store leadership teams, senior vice president of retail, John Browett…said that the company had been trying a new staffing formula for its retail stores, leading some employees to see their hourly shifts cut and retail locations to be understaffed.

He instructed leadership teams to tell employees, “We messed up,” according to two people who were aware of the communication, which also stressed that while shift schedules were affected, no one was laid off. He also wanted employees to know that [Apple Retail] was hiring new staff, these people said.

Well, Mr. Cook. It looks like Mr. Browett made a mistake. Okay, fine, you and I can talk about that. But wait, there’s more.

A report from ifoAppleStore claims that it was no staffing formula that caused the commotion; it was Mr. Browett’s own plans put into motion. From the report:

A series of recent administrative moves to reduce the number of Apple retail store employees is being attributed to Sr. VP Retail John Browett…who feels the stores are “too bloated” with employees, and he is willing to gamble the stores’ legendary customer experience to gain back a few points of profit margin.

According to ifoAppleStore’s sources, Mr. Browett sent the following orders to many of Apple’s Retail Stores:

  • Cease all recruiting and hiring events
  • Make no promotions
  • Immediately lay off newly-hired employees who are still on probation
  • Reduce available hours for part-time employees
  • Reduce or eliminate available overtime
  • Lay off or fire employees who can only work more than 32 hours a week and not part-time

Hold up, Johnny B., Apple Retail is the most profitable retail operation in the history of the world. The company as a whole is sitting on enough money to buy several countries. Why is there the need to make drastic cuts to already overworked and underpaid employees? Why risk the one thing that makes Apple Retail, and Apple as a whole, so special?

From my experience as a longtime customer and as an Apple retail employee for several years, I can say with confidence that Apple employs some of the most caring, talented, and loyal people in the industry. Sure, there are lots of employees who are there just part time and may not be the most helpful individuals, but the core group, especially those who provide technical support, are, overall, outstanding.

Apple knows this and, frankly, it has often taken advantage of this fact. Apple employees who repair “computers and relationships,” as the company likes to say, are paid about as much as the individual in the clothing store next door who folds jeans all day. Not to say that folding jeans is not an essential task for the clothing industry, but chances are that he or she doesn’t have to listen to dozens of people each day who have just lost the only copies of photos of their kids, or dunked their phone in a toilet 20 minutes before a flight out of the country.

Apple Retail jobs are stressful, demanding, and require significant technical knowledge in addition to a whole lot of compassion, understanding, and a willingness to take vicious abuse. The kind of people who meet these criteria simply don’t come cheap and Apple needs to divert more money and resources, not less, to this critical group of employees.

Mr. Browett needs to wake up and get his act together: he’s not at Dixons anymore. I had the opportunity to go to a Dixons in Manchester while I was in the UK a few years ago. I don’t mean to offend any Dixons employees, and I know that things can vary from store to store, but the place was a joke, filled with random merchandise and pushy employees who didn’t know anything about the products they were peddling.

Inside DixonsYou know what would be great? If Apple stores looked like this. (via Dixons)

My experience there was the complete antithesis of what we expect from an Apple Store. Yes, there are many examples of Apple Retail Stores doing something stupid but, overall, it’s simply the best way to experience, learn about, purchase, and fix Apple products.

Apple Retail Stores, although they are responsible for a relatively small percentage of the company’s total revenue, are the face of Apple. They’re the symbol of consumer excitement for Apple product launches, they’re the gold standard of retail technical support, and they’re a crucial component of Apple’s overall marketing strategy. Why pay for advertising when the local news stations send trucks to the Apple Stores the morning of every product launch?

Regardless of whether the workforce “mess up” was intentional on Mr. Browett’s part, let me emphasize the following because I, and many others, thought he would have figured this out already: He can’t treat Apple like Dixons. It doesn’t matter if the retail division doesn’t directly make as high of a profit percentage as other areas of the company because the mere existence of Apple Stores drives revenue to nearly all areas of Apple. In short, Apple Retail is worth significantly more than the value of its bottom line.

We now have two possibilities: 1) Mr. Browett made a mistake, as he claimed, and this was not intentional, or 2) ifoAppleStore’s sources were correct and this was indeed an aborted attempt at a new retail strategy.

I was surprised when Mr. Browett was picked by Apple to replace Ron Johnson, especially given my personal experience at Dixons. Hiring John Browett to run Apple Retail is like hiring a McDonalds manager to run a world-class restaurant. Sure, you’ll get your food and the owners will get their money, but everyone’s going to have a bad time.

If the recent retail turmoil was a mistake, it speaks to Mr. Browett’s incompetence. If it was intentional, it makes me question the character of an executive who could show such little regard and appreciation for his employees. It also speaks volumes about his fundamental lack of understanding of how Apple arrived at the position it is in and where it needs to go.

This situation with Mr. Browett is the first major screw up by Apple management since the departure of Steve Jobs and, honestly, I’m a bit surprised. Other unfortunate events have occurred, like the EPEAT switcheroo, but this was a serious blow to not only the Apple community, who is now confused about what exactly is going on in Mr. Browett’s administration, but also to Apple’s “greatest asset,” as an Apple spokesperson accurately put it: its employees.

Hardworking people who have given much of their energy to Apple had their lives seriously disrupted, and a little “whoops” email from Uncle Browett isn’t going to fix the situation. If the employees aren’t happy and secure in their jobs, then the customer experience will certainly suffer, all to raise profits a few percent.

Mr. Browett was a bad fit from the beginning. We thought that he could adapt but we were proven wrong. I’m sure he is a fine person but it takes a very special individual to run a very special retail operation and, regardless of what caused this whole situation, Mr. Browett is not that person.