Speaking to WWD after her first onstage appearance at Apple’s iPhone and watch event on Tuesday, O’Brien couldn’t contain her enthusiasm. Finally, after almost three years of construction and remodeling, New Yorkers and visitors will finally be able to peer inside the large glass cube that sits atop Apple’s underground flagship.
For the new retail head, the grand reopening couldn’t happen on a better day.
“The news we’re so excited about [is] the combination of these fantastic new products arriving at our stores the same day that we’re opening Fifth Avenue,” she said. “We’re just thrilled about the fact that we were able to align those things, and make sort of a perfect moment for Apple.”
O’Brien might be new to the role, but her deep experience at Apple goes back three decades. She even worked on the company’s first stores, nearly 20 years ago.
Today, her attention is on the new offerings and the Fifth Avenue location. The devices are the latest iPhone 11 smartphones, a new iPad and the Apple Watch Series 5, as revealed on Tuesday. The company can’t wait for its legions of employees to show shoppers how to use them. O’Brien, who remains in charge of human resources, noted that Fifth Avenue will be staffed by as many as 900 people speaking some 30 languages.
The effort could be viewed as a stab at inclusiveness. But in Apple’s eyes, it’s also just good business.
“Whether you’re at Fifth Avenue or a mall store, somewhere in the middle of the U.S., we want to make sure our customers really feel our care and support,” she explained.
The malls surely would appreciate any help they can get in courting shoppers. According to Credit Suisse, one in four will die off over the next five years. Symbolic of online marketplaces replacing shopping complexes, Amazon announced in July that it would build a fulfillment center where Ohio’s Rolling Acres, one of the most notable victims of the mall carnage, once stood.
In general, Apple is not worried about the declines in mall traffic, according to O’Brien. Its version of techtopia spans 507 locations that operate everywhere from middle America to historical sites like New York’s Grand Central Station, London’s Regent Street and by the Théâtre National de l’Opéra in Paris. By its count, Apple sees more than a million people per day worldwide.
That confidence extends to shopping malls, too, with the iPhone-maker reinvesting in its mall stores, updating them to fit its newer retail ethos. Apple’s not interested in running mere service centers or pushing product. It wants to create experience-driven destinations.
That’s where its new Apple Watch Studio fits in. The stations allow customers to mix and match wristbands and cases, while the store also plays host to Today at Apple programming. The events run the gamut, from tutorials to guest speakers to live music. There will be plenty of space for them. Apple Fifth Avenue will be the company’s largest store yet, nearly doubling the previous retail iteration’s 32,000 square feet.
“You’re going to see expanded space for our ‘geniuses,’” O’Brien continued. “You’ll see a lot more space for sharing and telling our product story.…And then there’s lots of space for personal setup, where we help customers get familiar with their products, transfer data and do all the things that have customers leaving the store feeling really well taken care of.”
And for the city that never sleeps, it gets an Apple Store that doesn’t either: True to its “Always open for open minds” tag line, the latest Midtown location will be open 24 hours per day, seven days per week. The approach is rooted in communal spaces for the public — which apparently includes insomniacs and late-night Mac or iOS users with kernel panics and other tech horrors.
What they’ll see is an open, airy environment with high ceilings, touches of greenery and plenty of room, so the creativity can really let loose. There is also product. But at Apple Fifth Avenue, it’s just not the first thing a visitor sees. It’s not even the second thing.
From the street, a futuristic-looking glass room beckons people to take a closer look. The next is a massive staircase that feeds into a lower level, complete with trees and several places to sit or mingle. The stairs anchor the place — as if to keep it from floating away on clouds of enlightenment. ”It’s unbelievable,” O’Brien added.
The spiral stairs tell consumers everything they need to know about the company’s intentions: Don’t just race in. Take the long way around (and around). Soak in the atmosphere. Even the center column, which reflects the space, seems designed to help the effort.
Outside, the roster of notable neighbors is long — from Trump Tower to major design houses, including Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Emilio Pucci, Tom Ford and Fendi, among many others. The list also includes Burberry, the fashion house once run by Apple’s previous head of retail, Angela Ahrendts.
As one of her last projects at Apple, Ahrendts steered the development of the store at the Carnegie Library in Washington, D.C. But when she left in April, the store opening in May landed in O’Brien’s hands. As for Fifth Avenue, O’Brien hasn’t put her stamp on that either, much less Apple’s broader retail strategy.
“We’re constantly pushing to continue to evolve [the retail strategy] as we should,” she said. “But I feel like the plans we have right now are great, and we’re just continuing to focus on making them even better.”
No doubt, Apple is hoping that pans out. Because the stakes are higher than ever.
Tech pundits and analysts have been fixated on lagging iPhone sales, which put a rather intense spotlight on Apple’s shopping apparatus. But in the wake of Tuesday’s announcements, analysts seem optimistic about the new price points.
When the Fifth Avenue store throws open its doors, it will carry a new base model iPhone that’s $50 cheaper than the previous one, at $699 for the iPhone 11 versus the iPhone XR’s $749. For the first time, an Apple Watch will be available for $199, though it’s an older-generation Series 3. With updates to Apple’s trade-in program, the price can fall even further in several regions.
The price cuts are unusual for Apple, but they’ve both surprised and delighted analysts like Morgan Stanley’s Katy Huberty. She called the price points “compelling,” noting that “Apple didn’t raise prices relative to comparable product launches last year after several years of price increases. What’s more, lower starting prices for iPhone 11 and Watch Series 3 are more attractive for first-time buyers.”
O’Brien thinks there’s more to success than pricing. And from her perch, seeing Apple’s start in brick-and-mortar retail grow into a sprawling, international retail operation with 70,000 employees and a growing product portfolio, she seems unfazed. “We have so many more products now,” she said. “[But] we just keep focusing on the customer. We take all this great new technology Apple has and find the best way to help our customers understand it, enjoy it, be creative with it.”