LOS ANGELES — Apple is going the way of the iPhone, iPad and its other gadgets in talking about the future of physical retail. That is, its town squares — or, in more traditional parlance, stores — are its largest product.
“We talk about the store being the biggest product that we produce now and we launched five new features in that product,” said Apple senior vice president of retail Angela Ahrendts during a dinner at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit Monday evening.
Accessories are called ‘avenues’ for the little shops that typically encircle a town square. A high-resolution digital screen, called the forum, seats 75. A new position at the stores, called the creative pro, will now rival the Apple genius tech support position. The creative pros will teach customers, for example, how to be a better photographer by doing product demos or signing a customer up for a photo walk-through.
“The vision was, I love the street sign that Steve [Jobs] used to put out at keynotes that Apple was the intersection of liberal arts and technology. It just always resonated being a 50/50 right-wing, left-wing kind of person,” Ahrendts said.
She spoke for the first time publicly about the new retail concept at the three-day conference taking place at the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point through Wednesday. This year’s agenda includes a roster of high-profile speakers drawing from the c-suite and Hollywood, including Barbra Streisand; Chan Zuckerberg Initiative cofounder Priscilla Chan; Alphabet and Google chief financial officer Ruth Porat; IBM chief executive officer and chairman Ginni Rometty; Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg; YouTube ceo Susan Wojcicki; Chelsea Handler, and Ivanka Trump.
Ahrendts said that by year-end, 95 Apple doors will have the new design, which bears in mind her goal of retail fulfilling an obligation to the communities they’re in.
“I’m at the stage in life where I think big companies have an obligation,” she said. “The bigger the company, the bigger the obligation and so our whole vision for the new store design concept is, ‘What does the community need?’ How do we make it so the best of Apple can come together in one place….We mapped out everything people do on their devices and said, ‘How do we make sure that we create an experience where the best of Apple comes together,’ [for] one. But, two, how do we make sure that the bigger that Apple gets, we put something there that’s so wow but also that is so incredibly local.”
The company plans to activate a curriculum next year at retail that three times a day will teach kids to code for free. There will also be programming geared towards parents and teachers. The tech firm is piloting a program called Teachers Tuesdays at its Union Square location where Apple employees devote all of their time to helping educators on that day of the week. Last week’s event attracted 78 teachers.
Reimagining Apple’s store network is vital for the tech giant as its growth slows on declining sales of the iPhone, iPad and similar products, while the performance of the Apple Watch is generally viewed by analysts as disappointing. In July, Apple registered the second consecutive decline in quarterly profits and sales, reporting a 27 percent net profits drop as iPhone sales stalled. The company also predicted that revenues would fall again in the third quarter.
The 2013 TED Talk she gave, titled “The Power of Human Energy,” garnered the interest of Tim Cook as he sought to court the-then Burberry ceo to come to the tech firm.
“When Tim called the first time I said, ‘Thank you very much. I’m incredibly honored, but I have the greatest job in the world so, no, thank you,” she said, recounting that point in time.
She and Christopher Bailey, current chief creative officer and ceo, built upon the foundation laid by Ahrendts’ predecessor Rose Marie Bravo — who recruited both Ahrendts and Bailey to Burberry. The duo’s strategy included building up retail, targeting a younger customer and playing up the brand’s British heritage as a differentiator amid its Italian and French counterparts.
Ahrendts made it a point of trying to dissuade Cook from attempting to recruit her.
“In one of the e-mails [to Cook] I proposed something that I thought might delay him a couple of months,” she said. “I sent a very nice, gracious humble e-mail and just said, ‘Thank you so much and if you ever would consider the retail stores and integrating those with the online business, because that’s the lens that I see the world through — at Burberry we did everything digital first. I said…if you ever considered doing that, then of course I would have to consider.”
Five minutes later, she said, Cook responded saying he hadn’t thought of it that way but loved the idea.
She admitted she didn’t expect him to accept her vision of the job, but in 2013 she was tapped for the newly created position of Apple senior vice president of retail and online stores, taking on a division that has some 65,000 people with a corporate culture that helps boast an 87 percent retention rate and a vision that aims to bring humanity back in a digital world.
“You go to Washington Square Park in New York or you go to Covent Garden or Union Square and on weekends, you’ll see an artist over here sketching something or a guy playing a guitar over here and kids love that,” she said. “It’s a human experience because they’re so used to living in their digital world. So our whole concept was how does the store become more like a town square where the best of Apple comes together, everyone’s invited and it becomes almost a community hub.”