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Top 5 Lessons I Learned Working at Apple Retail in the Early 2000s (Plus a tale from retail)

March 30, 2021

In 2002, Alan and I were on the Apple Store’s opening team at Oakbrook Terrace mall. Oakbrook Apple opened on November 29th, 2002, as the 50th Apple retail store. 

It was a different time in Apple retail – now there are over 500 retail stores! Oakbrook opened with a staff of around 30 employees, and we quickly became a little family. At the time, our managers told us that it was harder to get a job at Apple Retail than get into Harvard – over 5,000 people applied for those 30 spots. (Eventually, that little 30ft wide store would need 4x as many employees to meet customer demand!)

The team went through multiple weekends of specialized training. We unloaded trucks full of products and put them on the shelves for the first time. In 2002, the second generation iPod was coming out, the iMac had a round base and floating screen, and there were significant periods in the day when not a person walked into the store. Hard to believe after you go to an Apple store today. 

In the nine months that I worked at Apple, here are the top 5 lessons I learned:

1 – Focus on the benefits, not the features

In our pre-launch training, benefits vs. features was one of the critical takeaways. Differentiating between features and benefits was a revelation to me at that time. 

Of course, customers wanted a fast computer or a bigger hard-drive, but why? The retail team trained us to ask questions that elicited a robust response and then frame features as benefits. 

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For example: 
Specialist: “Tell me about some of your hobbies?”
Customer: “I like to create videos of my kids soccer games.”
Specialist: “Great! You will love how easy the built in iMovie application makes editing and the iMac you are interested in has a super fast DVD burner built right in!”

Finding out about the customer gives you the tools you need to frame the benefits of what they are buying. It also is a great way to find areas where they might need more; like in sports video case, it would make sense to pitch a faster processor to speed up video editing. (Also, shout out to DVD burning! That mystical experience that required faith and grit.)

2 – Ask open-ended questions

I already put this one on display above, but this principle was not something I had considered until our Apple retail training. It is so easy to ask closed questions – especially when speaking with customers. 

In example above it feels logical to ask, “Do you make videos?” But then the customer only has to give you a yes or no. By asking an open-ended question, you learn more about who they are and what they desire. Armed with that information you can enrich their experience with the benefits. When you stop at yes or no, you don’t have enough information to serve the customer well.

3 – Commission free is amazing, but that isn’t the only ingredient to an excellent customer experience

Apple retail is proudly commission-free, a no-pressure sales environment – and I love that! But it didn’t take long to learn that other metrics can produce similar anxiety in workers and still negatively impact customers. (Note that I can only speak to Apple retail in 2002-2003.)

Metric tracking is essential in any business, especially retail. If you don’t know what is happening, how can you improve upon it. At Apple we tracked UPT (units per transaction), and add-ons like Applecare attach rates. If the team’s numbers were struggling to meet specific goals in these metrics, managers gave speeches to try to increase them. In the end, this creates a pressure environment that is like commission-based sales but without a clear reward for the workers. If not done carefully, this kind of pressure is worse for employees and customers because it can feel arbitrary.

To put it another way, you don’t want to create a reverse commission structure, where the reward is keeping your hours or job. Goals should come with real rewards, not maintaining the status quo.

If you manage employees, be aware of how every decision impacts your workers and your customers.

4 – Sometimes customers lose it, and that’s okay

Speaking of UPT, once Alan was selling an iMac to a customer who also needed DVDs to use his new DVD burner. Alan wasn’t trying to upsell or even increase the units in the transaction. He was just trying to set up the customer for success!

It was the last straw for this guy. He went from 45 minutes of being pleasant to boiling with rage! He left his entire purchase at the point of sale and stormed out yelling about being upsold. The DVDs represented $25 of a couple of thousand dollar transaction. Not precisely worth shouting over! 

Our store manager happened to be standing out on the sales floor watching and was confident Alan couldn’t have done anything better. An example of excellent management given the situation.

Sometimes customers are on edge, and it isn’t clear why. You have to take it with a grain of salt and keep serving customers well. In other words, you can’t control how people react, but you can bring your best to every interaction.

5 – Ownership is not the same as responsibility (and some workers require real responsibility)

In our store, our managers used the word ownership – a lot. At first, I thought it was a synonym for responsibility, but it isn’t. Here is how they differ: Ownership is taking your assigned task and internalizing the outcome. Responsibility is making choices that impact the result of the assigned task and then owning the outcome.

Ownership became a dirty, corporate jargon, word because I am the kind of worker who craves real responsibility. I will always take ownership over any task I do, but I need to know that I can make choices that make the outcome better (or worse). Ownership is a way of saying, “do exactly what we tell you, but you’re on the hook for the results.” It is simple delegation masquerading as empowerment.

Responsibility means you own the results, but you had autonomy which contributed to the outcome. 

If you identify an employee that thrives on responsibility, find a way to give them some. If you don’t challenge this type of employee, you will lose them! A key part of having employees is identifying this quality. These are the sorts of workers who will grow your business when you aren’t even looking. Also, when you need to promote within, look no further than this group of employees.

Bonus Tale from Retail: 

It had been weeks since I hadn’t seen this man come into the store and stare at me. Every day I was working, he would walk in around the same time and watch me. A little unnerving but also not overtly threatening. In 2003, I had a shaggy hair style with hair just over my ears. Some might say a little John Lennon or George Harrison-esque.

One day, standing near the video camera and printer display, he confidently strode up to me and stood 2 feet away. He reached out his hand, touched my hair, and said, “Beatles.” Then giggled and walked out – never to be seen again. 

Overall working at Apple was a joy and privilege. It was an invaluable experience at one of the greatest businesses in the modern era!

What have you learned from working retail? What great retail stories do you have!?

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