Customer Experience Files - Taking a Bite out of Apple

I spent some time at the Apple Store in Tyson’s Corner Virginia recently. We came in with a simple mission: secure some Nano gear for a 15 year old. While I’m a huge Mac fan, I must say that our experience was surprisingly underwhelming… In fact, it was bad, folks. While it's possible the problems we encountered are isolated to this store, there are some good lessons to be noted for anyone managing the retail merchandising experience.

First, upon entry into the store, it wasn’t clear where to go. We didn't see signs anywhere. As we wandered the crowded store and browsed the products at the tables, we realized accessories must be somewhere else. We meandered into the center of the store, where several rows of chest-high shelving held computing accessories. The problem was, there were no signs to indicate whether the items on each shelf were for IPOD, Mini, Nano…etc. So we were forced to look hard and long for what we needed. It was very crowded, and traffic spilled into our aisleways from what we later discovered was the "Genius Bar."

The accessory shelves, which started at about chest height and continued to the floor, were very cumbersome to navigate. First, they were dark grey, if I remember correctly. This, combined with the bright lighting and the low angle of the merchandise created shadows that made it hard to read packaging from a distance. Second, the aisle between the shelving units was perhaps three feet wide. This made the action of bending down to look at the lower shelves quite awkward: In the squat position, a customer would block the aisle, and customers bending over often bumped into each other. Frankly, it was more full contact than I usually like to have in my retail shopping experience.

Ultimately, we couldn't find what we really wanted, so we grabbed a charger and decided to check out and escape the crowded store. Checking out was harder than anticipated. We searched for the checkout area, assuming that the elevated Genius Bar was it. At first glance, it looked like a checkout line: The positioning made sense. It was a raised counter with computer screens and employees in front of them. There was a line leading up to the counter, and employees in front of computer screens were helping people. However, after getting in the line with and watching the activities taking place, we soon realized this was not the checkout line along with several other people.

After another lap of the store, we found the checkout area, which was a low counter at the front of the store. We stood there with three other customers for what seemed like an eternity. One audibly complained about the store's disorganization, stating she would rather not visit the store again. The couple in back of us nodded in agreement.

As we waited in line, I suddenly noticed the signs meant to label the various “zones” around the store were hanging in a tabular format from the ceiling. These were awkwardly above a normal line-of-sight for a store visitor. As I pointed this out to my friend, I observed that, from a design perspective, they also blended in with the ceiling, which made them almost indistinguishable. The woman next to me listened in and voiced adamant agreement with my comment. This was when I decided I had to blog on this subject.

Collectively, my Apple Store experience really surprised me. I am a HUGE fan of Apple and was a loyal Mac user for more than a decade - continuing today to be a devoted IPOD user. I love the creativity embodied by Apple, the history of innovation, their dedication to clean, ergonimic design and experience. However, we all learn from trial and error, and there are some real experience challenges here that I do hope Apple will carefully consider:

Wayfinding and Visual Cues: Clean lines are a hallmark of every Apple store…and the low shelves at center help maintain line-of-sight to the back of the store, where multimedia presentations, Pro Workshops and Unplugged events are offered. The problem is that despite the clean design concept, navigating store is difficult and annoying. I'd wage a bet that the lack of intuitive navigation inside this brick and mortar store sets preference for individuals to shop at stores like Best Buy or Target (ironic, since I believe the head of Apple's retail division hails from Target...). Merchandising at these stores is, for the most part, superior - all products are an easy eye and arm reach.... It's easy for customers need to find what they need quickly, without asking for help.

Not only was it difficult to get help, the only sign that is NOT white-on-white in the store's white and grey color schema is the Exit sign above the door. I find it ironic that the only clear direction to be found was THE WAY OUT. The signage that is meant to be helpful is placed out of the customer's line-of-sight, not easily distinguishable or missing entirely.

There are some easy fixes for the problems at the Tysons Apple Store:
  • Make each station more easily identifiable. This can be accomplished through improved signage (placement, design) and reinforced by more intuitive wall visuals. Place signs within the average visitor's line-of-sight and use colors that easily stand out against the background color scheme. Add labels to accessory shelving to make the browsing process more intuitive and easy.

  • Place potentially congested areas at a comfortable distance from other congested areas (in this case, the Accessories area vs. the Genius Bar). This will reduce confusion and help customers browse comfortably - without the added congestion of the adjacent area.

  • Offer visitors a little “storientation.” At a minimal level, post an employee at the front to greet and direct customers. Depending on the unique needs (size, layout) of each store, offering informational cards, kiosks and simple layout signs may be helpful, as well.
  • Roadblocks: Beyond not understanding where to go, it's important not to throw barriers up that prevent customers from getting what they want quickly and efficiently. The roadblocks we encountered weren't just presented by the wayfinding challenges described above - it was positively "clunky" to get a basic product and check out. An online store with the same problem would have a higher shopping cart abandonment rate...and we can assume brick and mortar stores are no different. My friend and I almost left without our purchase in frustration.

    In keeping with time tested best-practices, Customers shouldn't have to "work" to locate or examine merchandise. The easy fixes:
  • Place products within comfortable reaching distance, preferrably within a reasonably natural line of sight and arm's reach. For example, it would be relatively easy to use taller, or elevated accessory shelves and angle them in the floorplan to create the center-asile line-of-signt into the back of the room without negatively impacting the clean store design or real estate usage.

  • Get people in and out more easily. Beyond storientation, it was really a pain to check out in this store. The checkout line was serving as a customer service department (returns, IPOD service) and checkout. The irritated people in line mostly had simple transactions to conduct and were forced to wait in excess of 15 minutes to while faulty IPODs were replaced and special orders were created. Address long lines immediately to support both simple and complex transactions.

  • Collectively, this mini case study illustrates how important it is to continue to test and iterate the customer experience to improve outcomes and remove the pitfalls that impact customer loyalty. In the future as I peruse the malls and stores, I'll definitely compare these observations to other Apple stores, as I'm curious about the continuity of experience between them. That's all for today, though. ;-)


    Anonymous said...

    It's a computer store... it's meant to showcase computers. It does that well. iPod toys are off to the back because they're not really the point. And if you can't figure out how a store works, you could, you know, maybe ASK somebody.

    LivePath said...

    To clarify, we did try to find someone to help us, and got someone after 10 minutes... He was in a hurry and told us that they didn't have what we wanted.

    As far as accessories not being "the point" - I'd beg to differ, along with Apple! The company allocates 25% of the store real estate to Accessories and other items - a percentage equal to that of other products, music and photos, Genius Bar and movies. Look at the annual revenues produced by IPOD products and accessories...

    Maybe this reader (who posted from Kilduff Iowa) doesn't have a store with the kind of problems the Tysons Corner store has. However, this type of cavalier attitude illustrates perfectly why customer experience remain unaddresed in many corporations.

    I think, unforunately, this reader ws actually missing the point.

    Anonymous said...

    Please visit for detailed information about how Apple Store are organized and operate. Also, note the amount of money Apple makes from it's retail operations. While you may personally not like the layout or may of had an abnormal visit, the foot traffic at every Apple store cannot be ignored. Most Apple Stores average over $4000 per square foot of retail space compared of $300-$400 for most orther retailers. Next time you vist an Apple store I gsugest rather than searching for something simply ask an Apple employee for help. Apple's philosophy is to keep it simple so simply ask for help.

    Anonymous said...

    I visited an Apple store recently and had a similar experience. Eventually we figured things out, but I think for the most part they could do a better job of directing people through the store. The employees are pretty helpful but you're right that people shouldn't have to seek out help and ask all the time for basic stuff.

    Anonymous said...

    At my last visit to an apple store, one employee offered faulty advice on my DVD superdrive (she did not know that it could burn DVD+R media), another did not know the store educational purchase policy and had to be stopped as she tried to sell me software at the reduced price (which it turns out is only available online), while the final employee I encountered advised me to buy Final Cut Express "without the HD" because it was less expensive (Apple now only makes Final Cut Express HD). But they all politely smiled!

    Anonymous said...

    Yeah, our Des Moines, Iowa store is packed also, has been since it opened 1 1/2 years ago. I have been to larger Apple stores and they are better laid out and the experience is nicer, but we don't have that option and are fortunate to even have a store in our town, let alone in our state. For the most part you need to treat it like a popular restaurant on a Friday night, if you didn't plan for the wait, you're gonna miss the movie! Relax, take a deep breath, enjoy the experience, don't get overwhelmed, it will be ok. Remeber, the online store is a still very good alternative.

    LivePath said...

    So, this post has triggered some good online and offline feedback. It's always welcome as long as it's constructive and focuses on creating dialog instead of being crass or destructive (those posts are deleted immediately).

    The feedback I'm getting only serves to remind me that Apple doesn't just have customers, it has FANS - and because of this, the threshold for experience hiccups tends to be much higher. That's another lesson in Customer Experience Management. You want raving, frothing fans - not just customers. Frankly, Apple has earned the fan base by offering a cumulative experience that has driven customer loyalty. That can't be overlooked - and it's one reason why crowded stores, experience hiccups and product problems (e.g. IPOD battery) can be tolerated and overlooked. ;-)

    Even so, solid history and reputation -- the fan base doesn't mean that Apple - or any other company - should disregard feedback from customers who see room for improvement. In fact, it's precisely because Apple weighs this type of feedback that they're one of the best experience brands in the world.

    Like I said before, even the best have room for improvement.

    LivePath said...

    Sent to Live Path via email - this poster would rather be anonymous, and while I can neither support or invalidate this feedback, I thought the feedback would be appropriate to post:

    I noticed that anonymous posting was off. As I'm sure you'll understand, I do not wish to identify myself.

    As a former Apple Retail employee, I can offer one theory as to the lack of knowledgeable staff. It comes down to money.

    Initially, Apple offered a pay structure above the norm for retail in an effort to get good people with varying backgrounds.

    Apple restructured the compensation during the first year, laying off the higher paid staff members, shrinking teams, and hiring more "economical" employees. Now they compete with every other store in the mall.

    While many potential Apple Retail employees would work for a bit less money to represent Apple, not many would make the same decision for typical retail wages.

    murli said...

    I am a loyal Mac fan for the past 20 years, and I am past the cult phase even while I continue to stand up for Apple. What has been described in this blogpost about the Macstore seems to be a disturbing trend at Apple since St. Steve's second coming of emphasizing style over substance. I teach user interface design so I know just a wee bit about what I am saying. These have been noted before by many, but just a recap:
    -> the hockey puck mouse (Logitech and MS mice are far more ergonomic)
    -> the refusal to add a second mouse button on laptops
    -> refusal to include page-up, page-dn and forward delete buttons in keyboard
    -> vast ramifications of the jelly-bean Aqua theme including: teeny close/resize buttons (violates Fitts' Law); placing these buttons far too close (they were much better placed at opposite corners, as until System 9); poor visual affordance of scroll bars (they look slippery); tiny arrows at each end of scroll bar (violates Fitts' Law);
    -> refusal to allow window resizing on all four window edges a la Windows

    Don't get me wrong -- I love Macs for both their ease of use and because of their classy styling. But whenever style and substance are in conflict, it is the latter that should take precedence. Unfortunately, it appears that Apple wanted the stores to look cool, usability be damned.

    Postal said...


    A couple of points. First, Apple didn't keep the hockey puck for long. The "teardrop" style is a much better fit. The Mighty Mouse isn't great, but I find it comfortable enough and I like the tactile feel of clicking it.

    As for the second mouse button, remember that Apple still wants to enforce its human interface guidelines, and a large part of that is making sure that developers don't hide important commands in contextual menus. If Apple offered a multibutton trackpad, the pressure would then be on to do the same for the Mighty Mouse (which is technically multibutton, but acts as a one-button mouse by default). It's a position Apple probably needs to hold almost in spite of itself.

    West Side said...

    To the anonymous commenter, I think its kinda funny to claim that because the store handles lots of traffic that the designs couldn't be improved. I'd reckon that Apple would have equal amounts of retail traffic, even if it was laid out like those M.C. Ester optical illusion paintings. As popular as the iPod is, they could make money in spite of the store design. Still, I'd argue that Apple is constrained some by what vacant space they could get in that mall. Tysons was the first store to open. (Another store in the region -- Pentagon City -- has an exceptionally odd layout. The checkout counter is actually around the corner in the back, completely hidden away from the entrance.) It doesn't mean they can't make better use of the space. They could.

    John Pastor said...

    I hope you do know that there are signs inside the store above each section, labeled, "iPod", "Mac", etc.

    sudukolla said...

    After working for 4 years at the Apple retail store as employee I do understand this customer’s experience. When I started at the store when Apple had four stores and there were no more than 30-40 customers per day who walked in through the doors. We had less than 15 part time and full time employees in our Apple retail store. I am no longer an apple retail employee. When I left the store just few months ago we have hired over 100 employees mostly part time and few full time employees and we have over 200 people now walk through those front doors every day. Our store was located just few miles of Tyson’s corner store. I honestly believe no one not even Apple had a faintest idea that a cool gizmo called iPod would ever take off making a huge product. These stores can’t withstand the amount of customers we were experiencing day after day. Originally Apple stores offered “boutique” like experience with a Genius bar for customer technical support where people came sat in a bench for their turn. When the iPod phenomena took off, higher ups had to change every thing in the operations to accommodate vast expectation of customer support both in sales and service instantly. Given the number of stores in operation it is not easy to implement such changes over night. To hire and train staff takes considerable amount of time. In my experience these stores even with so many employees are not designed to handle hundreds of customers every day who are searching for knowledgble retail staff. I know the store customer is refereeing and it’s in one of the busiest mall in northern VA. During the busiest times just about every employee is overwhelmed by sheer volume of customers. On Saturdays and Sundays we used to run all our five cash registers morning till late evenings people lined up to the doors and we had all of our employees plus the management work to help customers. To my previous experience all our staff were dedicated to customers all the way top to bottom. Given the explosive growth in iPod sales it’s not surprised to see explosion of the seams of customer experience.
    My advice is to send the letter to the store management. Their email address is listed on the receipt or contacts the store to find out. I remember every manager read all customer suggestions, complains, and responded to every customer. This would be the best way to address some of the issues you have indicated. If you are not happy with management response you always can contact regional management of the store. Also remember be patient change doesn’t happen overnight.

    LivePath said...

    Sudukolla's post describes Apple's conundrum really well. What started as a boutique store for high ticket items and lower traffic is now a destination for more... Excellent insight.

    So what does this mean? Well I'd venture a guess that the folks at Apple Computer are working hard to develop new store layouts, traffic pattens and staffing approaches to deal with the influx. I'd view it like scaling for Christmas -- there's gotta be a different modis operandi when the traffic patterns change.

    Boy I'd love for someone from Apple to weigh in on this. What a great case study!

    unix42 said...


    FYI, unless you have the exact serial # or exact model of your coputer, (year, month, processor etc) there is no way for the sales person to figure out whether or not you can burn DVD+R.

    That was not possible until about 1 year ago. Apple didn't support that format for a very long time.

    they can only help you as much as you help them. Good Luck.

    Anonymous said...

    I always find it amazing how some people not connected with Apple in anyway get so annoyed when others offer Apple helpful criticism.

    When the Apple Stores opened they were very simple. Computers on the periphery, software in the middle. Plenty of room in the aisle. The only major issue was there was no room for a line at checkout.

    Then the iPod made a big splash and Apple updated it's older stores, like Tysons, and also added a lot more iPod accessories. Obviously, selling accessories was not the original intent of the Apple store design. It's purpose was to showcase Apple products. Software and accessories were mere window dressing.

    Unfortunately Apple didn't really bother to redesign the store to account for the boom in iPod accessory sales. The iPod accessories aisle at Tysons and other locations IS to narrow and congested. On any given weekend you can't help but bump into people or have what you are looking for block by someone else. That is not the hallmark of good store design. And I think Live Path makes a very valid point.

    If you go to the very back of the store where the Mac software is it's basically a ghost town. To me it just screams "wasted space." I think Apple would do much better to make this roomier area into the iPod corner and put the meager Mac software selection up front.

    b. waters said...

    While I see many people's dilemma, I must say I have always been treated with courtousy and respect at the Tysons Corner store. Yes, it is crowded and yes it can be hard to get help, but the employees are really top-notch and know their stuff for the most part. While I perhaps see your quam about the shelves, I think you envision a store too quixotic to be realistic.

    In Tysons, you are always going to have lots of people. If they had shelves spaces out further, or started with shelf items at waist-height, you would only have half the merchandise out on display. In regards to the genius bar and check out line, I think they are pretty easily distinguishable (hence the large "genius bar" sign and line queue in front of cash registers.)

    If you are making the trek to an Apple store, don't expect to be in and out in 5 minutes. Walk around, get acquainted with it. That way, the next time you need something you will have a general idea of where to find it. Also, keep in mind this is Northern Virginia. We are accustomed to traffic, crowded restaurants, and busy stores. Like another user suggested, take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy your time browsing the apple store.

    Anonymous said...

    Actually, space between the iPod accessories shelves is SEVEN FEET, not three. If you went on a weekend, all the people crowded in there made it seem like three.

    If you went on a weekend around Christmastime, that space seemed like 3 inches!

    iPod is bringing in a silly amount of traffic. Next time, ask an employee for help if there's something about the product you don't understand or can't find. They're nice at Tysons, even though they have to deal with a tremendous amount of people and random technical questions.

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    I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.


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