How Apple’s new store is selling the latest must-have: the connected customer

Jun 15, 2016

When asked to describe an Apple store, a familiar image comes to mind. Long, narrow tables made from solid maple run from the front to the rear of the store. The use of glass and light. New products to be explored, and old products to be fixed at the Genius Bar. The Apple store is so iconic that its store and layout was granted a service mark in 2013.

The opening of the Union Square store in San Francisco, however, marks a new direction for Apple’s retail design. Designed by Foster + Partners, the store indicates a shift in how Apple perceives its customer and the role Apple’s Macs and iPhones play in a saturated market.

The Apple Store in Union Square, San Francisco, opened in May 2016

The Apple Store in Union Square, San Francisco, opened in May 2016

In April this year, Apple shares dropped after the company reported a nearly 13% fall in quarterly sales. This is the first time revenue at the world’s most valuable publicly traded company has declined in 13 years. The design approach of the Union Square space suggests Apple’s focus has shifted from the product itself to the individual customer, and assimilating that customer into its brand community.

With over half of Americans owning one Apple product and the average British millennial owning three apiece, Apple already has a vast ecosystem of laptops, smartphones and accessories. The Union Square store is not just selling Apple customers the proposition of being someone with the latest iPhone or an upgraded Mac though. In the era of CEO Tim Cook, the store appears to re-boot the idea that Apple customer can be part of an exciting connected community whether in-store, at work or at play.

Community spirit 

“We are not just evolving our store design,” said Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Retail and Online Stores, “but its purpose and greater role in the community.” This is best seen in the introduction of The Plaza. Situated behind the store and open to the public 24 hours a day, visitors have access to free Wi-Fi, seating and music performances handpicked by Apple.

The Plaza at Apple’s Union Square store

Interestingly, Apple’s next store to open will also have a Plaza. The Stockholm store will overhaul a public fountain and seating, and suggests the company is placing an emphasis on its stores’ integration in the local community.

Apple is also clearly seeking to develop not just a community of brand advocates, but one that is informed and can use its products to excel and further elevate the brand. 20% of the Union Square store’s floor space is devoted to educational rather than retail pursuits. The Forum, for example, with its huge digital display, takes Apple’s model for in-store “how to”-style presentations and places more emphasis on interactive discussions.

Business casual 

The dominance of Microsoft Windows within the business community over the last decade had meant Apple only truly connected with and served certain sectors, notably the creative industries. However, the success of the iPhone and the shift to mobile has given Apple a greater share of general business activity.

The Union Square store has greater business emphasis than we’ve seen before, and the Boardroom space illustrates this. Apple aims to bring together San Fran startups and entrepreneurs in a space to network and solve problems. It’s highly likely that Apple’s services feature in their solutions. We also saw more promotion of enterprise-scale partnerships with the likes of SAP and IBM, which have helped Apple to sell straight to the workplace and coordinate an increasing number of applications and devices across corporate networks.

Related: Three essential rules when selling Internet of Things products

Over the last ten years Apple’s growth was driven by the consumer market, and many creative professionals felt marginalised or underserved. There had been a time Apple was the only creative computer system, but that position has gone. Nevertheless, in San Francisco we’re seeing a reawakening of this heritage.

Creative pros provide artistic assistance under a canopy of trees at Apple's Genius Grove

Creative pros provide artistic assistance under a canopy of trees at Apple’s Genius Grove

Out on the shop floor, a new breed of Apple staff has emerged to target the creative sectors. Creative Pros are experts in the arts who can offer advice and expertise on hardware and software to meet the specific needs of design studios and professional photographers, for example. Similar to Apple’s introduction of a fashion stylist-style script when selling the Apple Watch, Creative Pros speak the language of the artist whose needs and attitudes may have more flourish than the City worker.

A metaphor for change

GDR has spoken at length about the Internet of Things, heralded as a significant part of the fourth industrial revolution. According to a McKinsey study, the Internet of Things has the potential to deliver approximately $520 billion annually in global economic benefits by 2019. Apple’s addition of a smart watch to its product range shows its commitment to owning a slice of this lucrative industry, and the Union Square store’s retail design also reflects this. With its Plaza and its massive 40-feet high doors that almost entirely open the store up to the street, the boundaries of Apple’s shopfront are blurred. Chief Financial Officer Luca Maestri has said that customers aren’t upgrading their handsets as quickly as they once did – but the Union Square store puts its ecosystem on display and lets customers and passers-by participate in it.

HomeKit is Apple's framework for home automation

HomeKit is Apple’s framework for home automation

The upcoming launch of Apple’s Home app gives the store’s retail design an additional layer of context. The Home app essentially controls all of Apple’s HomeKit-connected devices in one place, and integrates Siri so Apple customers only have to utter “Good morning” to start their day with the curtains opening, kettle boiling and iTunes playing before they have even got out of bed. The fact that Home connects to devices such as air fresheners and door bells shows how far Apple is looking beyond their maple tables of iPads and smartphones.

The doors at Union Square are so large they take 10 minutes to open

The doors at Union Square are so large they take 10 minutes to open

CEO Tim Cook is ushering in a new era for Apple, one that goes far beyond its immediate slick product range and out into the everyday physical world through sensors and beacons. The Union Square store uses retail design to express this metaphor: the Apple experience is unlimited, reaching into all aspects of public life.

Apple does not want everyone to just have an Apple product. Apple wants everyone.

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