There’s a lot of garbage
written about Apple, but the cover
story of the latest issue of Fast Company seems pretty fair, if unoriginal.
(Innovation on its own doesn’t make money: who’d'a thunk?) The bit which piqued
my interest was in the sidebar at the bottom of the article, on the new Apple
store in Burlingame, California:
The store is done in iPod shades of white. "We chose hand-selected Tuscan
stone for the floors–a stone that’s somewhere between sandstone and limestone,"
says Ron Johnson, Apple’s vice president of retail. "It’s the same stuff
Florence was built on." …
Apple is holding leases on some of the most expensive real estate in the country,
in places such as tony Michigan Avenue in Chicago and New York’s trendy SoHo.
And then there are those Tuscan stone floors. "Apple is creating a boutique
environment, and they’re doing it in a very expensive way," says Roger
Kay, from the technology market research firm IDC. "It doesn’t seem very
reliable as an approach for selling large quantities of goods."
I think Kay is exactly right. People tend to ooh and aah whenever they see
an Apple store: they’ll even line
up round dozens of blocks to get in. It’s far from clear, however, that
the Apple stores are particularly good at getting people to actually buy their
computers: the company’s market share seems to be stubbornly stuck at around
3% these days.
Apple’s retail strategy isn’t working,
and the reason, I think, is the signal that the expensive polished fabulousness
of the stores sends to the Great Unwashed on Wintel machines. Tourists from
Pennsylvania come to New York to window-shop, and if they walk down Prince Street
from the Prada store, they’ll find Apple just past the Mercer Hotel, and opposite
Miu Miu. All of them have austere white interiors, carefully designed to showcase
objects of unrivalled beauty and sophistication (or, in the case of the hotel,
Christina Aguilera). For all that people are welcome to browse the machines
in the store, check their email, and ask questions, you’re never quite rid of
the feeling that you’re basically in a design museum with price tags.
Virginia Postrel is making a
big splash these days with her book
about how great design is becoming ubiquitous in contemporary culture. But there’s
something interesting about, say, the huge success of Michael
Graves at Target: while the individual items are wonderfully designed, they’re
still sold alongside bog roll and Wonderbread in cavernous warehouses abutting
even larger car parks. They’re cheap, they’re accessible, and they’re not in
the least bit intimidating.
Now, New Yorkers do not get intimidated by retail spaces such as the Apple
Store Soho, and in fact it might be the perfect shop for them. But selling Apples
to downtown New Yorkers is a bit like having half a dozen shops in the Bay Area:
you’re preaching to the converted. Apple wants its stores to appeal to the 97%
of the population who use Windows, and that means going beyond the creative
metropolitan types with high disposable incomes and targeting what politicians
like to call Working Families.
one thing, Working Families live in places like Oklahoma and Oregon, neither
of which have an Apple store. If you look at the map on the left, the black
dots represent Apple retail outlets: they’re clustered in Boston-Washington
corridor, the two big California conurbations, and a handful of other urban
centers. Dye the Apple stores blue, and you could almost have a map of Democratic
states. (No wonder Al Gore’s on Apple’s board.)
More importantly, however, Working Families, even if they’re in Oakland or
Staten Island and have easy access to an Apple store, tend not to pride themselves
on paying extra for glitzy packaging. That’s not to say they won’t do so if
given the opportunity: if they see a sleek stainless steel dishwasher next to
an ugly beige one, they might well pay a small premium for it. But here’s a
thought experiment: take that same sleek stainless steel dishwasher, at
the same price, and put it in a super-sleek Soho kitchen-design store,
full of polished marble countertops and state-of-the-art ranges. Then, take
your average working stiff, put him or her in that shop, and ask him if he’d
like to buy the dishwasher. There might be lots of cooing over it, but ultimately
the answer will be "oh, no, that’s not for me."
What Postrel talks about in her book is not just a reflection of the way in
which Americans are increasingly conscious of good design; it’s also a reflection
of the way in which American mass retailers are increasingly proficient at selling
that design to their customers. But Apple is not, and never has been, a mass
retailer, and its aesthetic is much closer to Helmut Lang than it is to JC Penney.
It’s entirely natural and proper for Apple to position itself as the computer
company for people who "think different". But the risk in that strategy
is that people will consider themselves more-or-less normal as far as computers
go, and therefore not the kind of people who should be getting a Mac. I have
a nasty feeling that Apple’s ultra-high-end retail stores only serve to reinforce
that notion: that Apples are for the kind of people who shop in Soho, or Michigan
Avenue, or Ginza.
What Apple needs to do, I think, is break out of the white box. The white stores,
the white-background television ads, the white computers: these all look gorgeous,
but they’re also somewhat intimidating. People need to be persuaded that the
guy next door has an Apple, not because he’s different or particularly cool,
but just because it does what he needs it to do much better than a Windows machine
In a way, the evangelical fervour of the Apple faithful works against the company:
the average Windows user, looking at the wild-eyed fanatics who’ll line up round
the block to celebrate the release of an upgrade to their operating system,
simply doesn’t understand why anybody would feel so strongly about their computer.
These people, maybe they Think Different because they are different.
Most people are intimidated by computers, and Apples, by right, should be less
intimidating than PCs. Apple should, really, be able to paint PC users as the
megahertz-and-gigabytes crowd, while Mac users don’t really care what’s going
on under the hood, they just know that they find it really easy to get things
done. Apple shouldn’t be the computer equivalent of a Viking
range. Rather, it should be a George
Foreman grill: simple, accessible, and popular.
Apple probably came closest to that ideal when it released the original iMac
in a rainbow of fruit flavours, back in the olden days of OS 9. But, bizarrely,
now that it has an operating system which is orders of magnitude better, Apple
doesn’t seem to have capitalised on its newfound user-friendliness to gain any
market share at all.
When Steve Jobs gives his next major speech, at Macworld
San Francisco on January 6, everybody’s expecting him to announce new, lower-priced
iPods. What I’m hoping for are new, lower-priced computers: when the iBook went
from G3 to G4 a couple of months ago, the prices actually went up,
ferchrissakes! If the iPod can come in a low-priced, mass-market, brightly-coloured
version, then – fingers crossed – maybe the Macinosh can, too.