updated 03:05 pm EST, Mon November 21, 2011
Apple clerks allegedly not pushed to upsell
The success of Apple Stores is attributable to more than just their products, claims JC Penney CEO Ron Johnson in a Harvard Business Review column and a related interview. Formerly Apple's senior VP of retail, Johnson credits "the experience" he helped to manufacture. "People come to the Apple Store for the experience -- and they're willing to pay a premium for that," he writes. "There are lots of components to that experience, but maybe the most important -- and this is something that can translate to any retailer -- is that the staff isn't focused on selling stuff, it's focused on building relationships and trying to make people's lives better. That may sound hokey, but it's true."
Specifically he remarks that Apple clerks aren't on commission. "Their job is to figure out what you need and help you get it, even if it's a product Apple doesn't carry," says Johnson. "Compare that with other retailers where the emphasis is on cross-selling and upselling and, basically, encouraging customers to buy more, even if they don't want or need it. That doesn't enrich their lives, and it doesn't deepen the retailer's relationship with them."
Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs is said to have wanted Johnson to become personally involved, which led the latter to oversee every store design and interview every manager. "I wanted to build relationships with all of them. They came to understand who I am and what I value. I don't know if I'm a great selector, but I'm a great connector. The people I hire trust me because of this personal connection," he claims.
He suggests that his philosophies should be able to applicable to other companies, including JC Penney, but that they require shifting from a focus on sales to creating value. "The Apple Store succeeded not because we tweaked the traditional model. We reimagined everything," he says. "We completely rethought the concept of 'try before you buy': You can test-drive any product, loaded with the applications and types of content you're actually going to use, and get someone to show you how to use it. If you buy it, we'll set it up for you before you leave the store. If you need help after that, you can come back for personal training. If there's a problem, you can usually get it fixed faster than a dry cleaner can launder your shirt."
Johnson adds that the company doesn't fixate on hiring retail workers at the lowest cost, and that the six to eight interviews required for a job ensure people "feel honored" to be with the company. He also challenges a legend that Jobs was at first opposed to the notion of Genius Bars. "Steve didn't object to the idea but to the name. And it didn't take long for him to embrace that, too. The next day he asked our legal team to trademark the name."
He nevertheless notes that Genius Bars were unpopular for the first few years, to the extent that bottles of Evian were kept refrigerated to encourage people to sit down. "But we stuck with it because we knew that face-to-face support was the very best way to help customers. Three years after the Genius Bar launched, it was so popular we had to set up a reservation system," says Johnson.