updated 12:15 pm EDT, Wed June 15, 2011
Expose explains retail chain's inner workings
While Apple Stores have been extremely successful, they are very closely controlled, and may be encountering problems as the chain grows ever bigger, according to a Wall Street Journal expose. The paper's information comes from interviews with current and former Apple workers, as well as confidential training manuals and a recording of a store meeting. One reason relatively little is known about how Apple Stores operate is because the company imposes tight lips on retail clerks, banning them not only from discussing product rumors but also writing anything about the company online, or even admitting product defects to customers before corporate has acknowledged them, the Journal's sources say. Restrictions are also placed on language, such that employees may be forbidden from correcting product pronunciations and required to use terms like "as it turns out" instead of a more natural "unfortunately."
Sales clerks are however taught not to push sales on customers, and in fact have no commissions or quotas as a rule, although they are asked to sell service packages with hardware and are retrained or moved to another position if they don't sell enough. Apple workers are instead supposed to solve problems, regardless of whether or not it moves product. "Your job is to understand all of your customers' needs -- some of which they may not even realize they have," one manual reads.
Manuals indicate that the company's official "steps of service" fall under the acronym APPLE: "Approach customers with a personalized warm welcome," "Probe politely to understand all the customer's needs," "Present a solution for the customer to take home today," "Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns," and "End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return." If a customer is irritated or upset, clerks are told to "Listen and limit your responses to simple reassurances that you are doing so. 'Uh-huh' 'I understand,' etc."
Layout is another carefully-managed aspect of Apple Stores. Sources say that it was former Gap president Millard Drexler -- who joined Apple's board in 1999, and advised on retail strategy -- who came up with the notion of a prototype store in a warehouse on Cupertino's Bubb Road, where Apple figured out how to display products in a way that showed how they could be used rather than simply organizing them by category. Drexler is partly responsible for the hiring of departing retail VP Ron Johnson, who is said to have devised the idea of a Genius Bar for technical support.
The hiring process for Apple Stores reportedly involves two sets of interviews, during which people are grilled about leadership, problem-solving skills and their enthusiasm about Apple products. Subsequent training may be intense, with classes matched by shadowing other workers on the show floor for two weeks or more, during which newcomers can't interact with customers independently. Genius staff require extra training and certification, and are then tested on a regular basis.
In US stores workers are paid between $9 and $15 an hour for sales, and up to $30 as a Genius. The Genius pay may be easily deserved, as support appointments can often be triple-booked, and opportunities to advance to a corporate job are rare. Some former workers say they left when they realized a corporate promotion was unlikely.
Some other tidbits revealed in the expose are that some outlets now have dedicated "briefing rooms," and that during a recent retail managers' meeting Johnson called the new Joint Venture business services one of the "pillars for retail for the next decade." All is not rosy, however, as some ex-workers say that the quality of store employees has been declining. The problem is allegedly the scale of the chain, which needs more and more people yet is finding proportionately fewer of the diehard Apple fans on which the company's retail service has normally depended.