What Business Owners Can Learn from Apple’s Store Makeover

The redesign features gathering places and community events to draw in the public and encourage people to linger.
Office atmosphere is crucial to your business's success. Take a page from Apple’s book when it comes to designing your space. (Photo: TonyV3112/ Shutterstock)

The iPhone 7 was recently unveiled, yet perhaps the biggest change happening at Apple right now is to its stores, which are being completely reimagined. Expect them to look more like town squares and function as community gathering spaces as well as retail outlets.

You don’t have to have Apple’s budget (who does?) to take inspiration from some of the changes.

Adding community to the equation

When the late Steve Jobs presented his proposal to create the first Apple store in the early 2000s, his board of trustees was not thrilled. The company didn’t have a lot of products, and other computer companies had tried (and failed) to sell in company-branded brick-and-mortar locations.

Still, Jobs was convinced stores were crucial to Apple’s success. Walter Isaacson wrote in his biography of Jobs that he didn’t want “an iMac to sit on a shelf between a Dell and a Compaq while an uninformed clerk recited the specs of each.”

The stores he created are famously minimalist, with no traditional cash registers but space for customers to try out products on bright white counters. The Genius Bar was inspired by the concierge desks at upscale hotels.

The stores were a smashing success. But now Apple is again blazing a new trail. In 2014 it brought on Angela Ahrendts, previously the CEO of Burberry, who is overseeing the transformation of its 500-plus locations.

In May the company debuted the stores’ new direction at Apple’s flagship in San Francisco’s Union Square. That store features several areas for customers to gather, new technology (including a 50-foot-tall 6K video screen), enormous windows and more greenery.

Rolling out the red carpet for customers — and everyone else

One of the more dramatic additions coming to select flagships is an area called The Plaza. Here, anyone from the public can sit and use the store’s free Wi-Fi 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Plaza will host concerts, art installations, talks and other events to draw people in.


“Create a space and experience where people feel they can spend time and play with your products and brand.” -Michael Brindley (Photo: Michael Brindley)

The Plaza represents a major shift happening in retail now, according to Michael Brindley, creative director at Fitch, a retail design and branding consultancy.

“In retail, there’s a movement where consumers want to know you’re active in the community, as opposed to a big brand that just drops in,” said Brindley. He visited the San Francisco location in September and viewed an art installation in the space. “I got a window into the local culture — Apple is trying to connect to that.”

For small businesses that have the room, adding a public area is a way to connect with the community, Brindley said. Host talks, artists, classes and information sessions about products, or just let customers hang out.

Spaces that create experiences

Apple’s famous Genius Bar has been updated to Genius Grove, with seating under ficus trees. The stores are also adding a conference room-like entity called the Boardroom, where local business customers and startups can come for advice, and the Forum, a seating area centered around a 6K screen that will host lectures, video premieres and other events.

Tom O’Guinn, professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, thinks Apple is doing it right. His research found that store density (the number of people per square foot) is inversely related to the price people are willing to pay and how people perceive the social class of the shoppers around them. In other words, less dense stores command higher prices.

“What Apple did is precisely what our research suggests,” he said. “They have lots of open space, glass and room to roam.”

The redesigns encourage customers to linger longer and interact more with employees, an effect small business owners can strive to recreate in their own stores.

“Create a space and experience where people feel they can spend time and play with your products and brand,” Brindley said. “Apple is actually listening to the voice of the customer and creating opportunities for brand feedback.”

Breaking down barriers between “outside” and “inside”

Apple’s new San Francisco store notably features 42-foot windows that face the street, interrupted only by a few support beams. The glass can open with the press of the button, so the store becomes open-air.

Making the entrance all glass allows customers on the street to look in and immediately have a clear expectation of what they’re going to find inside, according to Brindley. “They break down the physical space between outside and inside, so the store feels welcoming,” he said.

For small businesses, glass walls may not be an option, but Brindley noted that anything you can do to break down the barrier between your store and the street will help bring people inside. Consider making your window displays less cluttered or doing away with them altogether.

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