Ever since I heard about the Apple Store, I've been curious about what the big attraction is. It is clearly a huge hit with people.
I finally managed to track one down at the giant King of Prussia mall while I was in Philly. In the middle of an otherwise bland and mostly empty mall, the comparative buzz in the Apple Store was palpable. And the wall to wall service people (more than they needed) were highly noticable.
Intrigued, I simply HAD to pay a visit to the flagship Apple Store in New York while I was here, if only to try to get some kind of a feel for how they've managed to design a mini Steve Jobs Reality Distortion (SJRDF) that can run all year.
From the moment I descended the glass staircase, it was clear they've got that SJRDF absolutely nailed and running at 11. It's almost enough to make a guy switch. The new iPhone's are just gorgeous. And the Mac Air is a beautifully usable piece of design. Even the ordinary black MacBook is just wonderful.
But then I pulled myself together, remembered that the useless bloaty shiny GUI is completely distracting, and the laptop one-button mouse thing would keep annoying the hell out of me, and that I hate Macs in general.
So I shook off the effects of the SJRDF and took a more objective look around.
From what I can see, the Applo Store concept applies two main principles (with a third in play at the flagship ones like New York).
Firstly, they've optimised the buying process very very well.
There's no promotional material visible and no attempt to hard sell, everything is just sitting on plain tables spread out through the store, all the products actually work and you can try them before you buy them as much as you want. (Although internation calls were barred on the iPhone)
Related peripherals are largely hidden away under the plain demo tables to further prevent distractions and there's no Apple boxes anywhere, just the products on display, and the Apple sales people (of which there are a lot) can sell you stuff right there at the demo table without it going via a seperate cashier, which prevents lines and makes the process feel very interactive and personal.
It's all executed very very well, and does a generally competant job of making the selling process really easy.
The second principles is the key though, if I'm seeing it correctly. They seem to be intentionally exploiting an effect called Social Proof.
Social Proof is an effect that occurs when people look to the behaviour of others for clues to the value of someone or something in ambiguous situations.
The New York Times once did an experiement to show this, taking one of the world's best violin players to Grand Central Station with his $3.5 Stradivarious and getting him to busk. He made $35.
The Apple Store seems to use a variety of tricks to boost its Social Proof.
1. There's a lot of sales people, which fills up the space, but futher, they are all fairly young and (being Mac zealots of course) relatively excited about working there, compared to a typical older boring salesperson at a regular store.
2. The policy of making the products completely usable means there's a bunch of people on the Apple Store computers just doing stuff like checking their mail. They may just be leeching, but they further add to the store population and mean that every computer is in use.
3. The store is located at a naturally busy location, at the south-east corner of central park where a number a horse rides leave from, just outside a huge toy store, across the road from a large fountain, in the heart of mid-town.
In this location, filled with tourists anyways, they've dropped a huge attractor (the glass cube, lift, and underground store) attracted gawkers who just want to ride the glass lift.
4. They've also mounted fountains ON TOP of the store at ground level, and put out a ton of free chairs and tables people can sit at. This creates a pleasant park-like environment for people to linger at in the middle of midtown.
Because of the weight of people, this has also attracted hot dog stands and ice cream stands and all the other accoutrements of New York, creating a sort of carnival atmosphere outside.
5. The Genius Bar is a work of brilliance. Anyone who has worked in IT knows that the first thing people ask you when you say you are in IT is "Can you fix my computer?". The Genius Bar is a place where "they'll fix my computer".
BUT, most people who do leave there computers at the Genius Bar will also sit and wait inside the store, or otherwise hang around in the store. They may or may not buy something extra, but again they add weight to the store population.
6. The same thing happens with the training and instruction, the trainers train people in store, the periodic demos of programs are in the store, pretty much every interaction you might want to have with Apple involves you being right there in the store, adding to the population.
Result, the Apple Store is buzzing and very very full constantly, and that buzz draws even more people in. And although fewer people may actually buy stuff, enough of the extras do to make a hell of a lot of money.
It also helps they are selling very expensive consumer goods that fit into a small space... Little else in that price range ($500-$2000) can be displayed so densely.
And of course, finally in the case of the New York store, there is a media attractor.
Which is to say the mere fact the store is underground and has the giant cube and glass elevator and fountains on the roof serves as a very photogenic media beacon, which makes it a landmark and draws in yet more tourists and visitors.