Apple was one of the first major retailers to shut down almost all of its stores worldwide back in March. The company made the move as other aspects of daily life were just beginning to shut down and many states began to put in place stay-at-home orders.
Some of Apple's retail locations have since reopened, but in some areas Apple has either re-closed stores or kept them closed depending on the specific public health concerns. For Apple, its iconic stores have long been an extension of its overall brand experience for users and customers. Apple's entire reason for launching retail stores in the first place was to have better control over the customer experience in trying out and buying its products.
In many ways, the stores are more like showrooms, where, instead of aisles of shelves with boxes of products, they feature open spaces and long tables with products you can touch and experience. Apple Stores are high-touch environments, both in terms of customer interactions with iPhones and MacBooks and iPads, as well as between those customers and Apple's employees who teach classes, provide support, and help customers decide which band to pair with their new Apple Watch.
All of those touch points are what made the Apple Store such an incredible success. They're also what makes it a very difficult business to run during a pandemic.
Apple has done its best to recreate those touch points through some creative online experiences, but, there's a reason why people enjoy going into stores, and that's almost impossible to recreate online. It's just not the same.
Of course, that's the point. Nothing is the same right now. Nothing about the way we do business right now looks like it did business six months ago. And, it'll probably look different tomorrow. Every single business is trying to figure out how to adapt and continue to serve customers. In some cases, it's a matter of survival.
In Apple's case, the stores that are open are operating very differently than before. The company requires that everyone who enters its stores observe social distancing, wear a mask, and have their temperature taken. Apple is also limiting the number of guests in its stores.
For example, at the Fifth Ave store in New York City where I was this week, visitors enter a line outside where they were registered by an Apple Employee who took down names and emails, and asked if you were there to shop, for a genius appointment, or to pick up an order. Then, you proceed to a security guard who asks if you've been exposed to, or had symptoms of Covid-19 in the past few weeks. That guard then took your temperature with a touch-less thermometer.
Finally, you waited in a queue until an Apple Store employee let you in. When you entered, another employee greeted you based on what you said you were there to do. In my case, it was to shop, and I was taken directly to the product I was interested in.
The reason for the personal treatment, I was told, was to help ensure social distancing between guests. Meaning, the Apple Store employee takes you to the area you're interested in and then asks you questions to help you make the best decision about what you want to buy.
To be honest, normally I would hate the idea of being accompanied by a "salesperson." Then again, I normally don't go to the Apple Store to actually buy anything, but rather to look around and try out the "toys." In this case, however, it wasn't overly "sales-y" and we just talked about different Apple products. She invited me to try out whatever I wanted, and answered any questions I had. It was very much Apple-like.
It didn't feel like pressure, and you can tell Apple has put a lot of thought into how to balance the needs of a customer with the experience they expect, all while trying to keep everyone safe.
I don't know that Apple's model is the answer for every business, but the company seems to have figured out a shopping experience that maintains the Apple experience its customers expect.
Here's why this matters: One of the biggest challenges is how to create the same experience your customers are used to, even when the circumstances are different. When your customers are used to the way you do business, it can be difficult to translate that to a world of social distancing, wearing a mask, and limited indoor capacity.
It's also especially tricky when there is a tension between how to best serve your customers and how to keep them--along with your staff--safe. If you haven't started already, ultimately, that's the challenge you have to figure out.