Rewriting retail rules


Apple Computer
Temptation greater than Adam & Eve's fruit

Lately, we’ve been focusing on some of the new things that are making us look at marketing in a different way.  We’ve discussed social media, shopping apps, on-line gaming and auctions, plus the myriad ways marketers make money by using badly-disguised “tricks”.

Yet one thing missing here lately has been report of innovative bricks-and-mortar retailing.  Not surprising, as we read about the consistent quarterly downturn of majors such as Walmart, The Gap and so many others.

While savvy chains like Target, Tiffany, Costco, Publix — plus our frivolous favorite, Gumps — are doing well or just holding their own,  let’s admit it, many chains haven’t added any real “Oomph!” to their operations in a while.

But there is one company you really never thought of as a retailer which  is now making the corporate suits at the chains tremble, and that’s Apple.  From all trade reports, not since Adam and Eve has there been such excitement over an opening.

Ten years after its first Apple Store opened its door, the company has grown “faster than any retailer in history”, fawns a recent feature on USA Today, heralding the opening of their latest New York emporium.  With sales last quarter topping $ 3.2B — an increase of over 90% YTD — Apple is said to be rewriting the rules of retail. (Darn, and we were just learning them!)

What’s amazing is that this growth comes when the entire category (computer retailing) appears to be dying.  Witness the list of chains that have already shuttered all or some stores, or plan to:  Gateway, Circuit City, CompUSA, and Best Buy.  In contrast, Apple plans to add 40 new stores to their current total of 330, all expected to create the camp-outside-night-before-opening fervor they inspire in their fans.

To us, the Apple Store mystique is not entirely new.  We were already onto them way back on 8/24 when we posted about how fun they were.  After parting with beaucoup bucks for an iPad at one last year, well, we simply became groupies like the others…  

Not that we actually hang for hours at these stores, sitting at different terminals, writing a book (as apparently one customer did) or flirting with the quirky Genius Baristas (their “geek” sales team).  After all, we do have a business to run!

But we sure like to visit them.  The stores exude excitement and coolness, like a hot, stylin’ nightclub where you’re a VIP and from where you’ll never be bounced, and finally emerge, hours later, drunk on new tech.

Then, one day, not long ago, the iPad developed a serious problem:  the on/off switch stuck.  So we bundled the baby up and rushed it to the nearest Apple Store.  Like an efficient paramedic, a Genius Barista immediately came by, looked at it grimly and rushed it back-stage.  We feared the worst…

But it was just minutes later that the young Genius emerged with a brand, new iPad.  No muss, no fuss, no questions, and certainly no request for more money.  Could retail be any sweeter?!  

(Did we even bother to ask why the thing stuck in the first place?  The answer is an equivocal “No”.  We simply took the new unit and ran…)

The person responsible for this retailing nirvana is none other than former Target merchandiser-in-chief,  Ron Johnson.  Focusing on the the customer experience and sound assortment strategies that made Target a great place to shop, Johnson did what many said was impossible:  he turned a great computer-maker into a great retailer.

Marketers like to say:  “Well, we focus on our core competency, nothing else. ”  Heck, we’re guilty of that same sentiment.   But we admit we may be wrong here, as many apparently were about Apple. 

It’s not that they even had to go into retail.  Or, as though they weren’t already on top of their game with their numerous “iProducts” and now, the brand new, barrier-breaking iCloud.   And it’s not like Steve Jobs isn’t already a guru, if not a god, becoming more so with each re-appearance of his ravaged body at new product launches.  

It’s just that this is a company that decided to take total control of their brand.

That’s why Advertising Age just named Apple “Marketer of the Year”.   If they’re also named “Retailer of the Year”, well, then the rules really have to be rewritten.

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