Apple Retail roundtable: The stores of today and tomorrow

April will mark the one year anniversary of Apple's SVP of Retail and Online, Angela Ahrendts, joining the company, and it sounds like the training wheels are off and the retail veteran is ready to start making her mark on the company. Amidst new stores launched and announced, and ongoing rumors of new outfits, new designs, and new areas for the Apple Watch, we decided to put together our own thoughts on Apple Retail, both where it is today and where it looks to be heading tomorrow.

On the styling

Ren: As a former Apple Retail survivor, I can't help but have an odd fondness for the wooden, glass, and steel architecture of the stores. But I'd be foolish to insist that the Apple Store resist change. They've been overcrowded since I worked there back in 2008, with little room for setting up the kinds of displays and jewelry counters an Apple Watch might require. So I'm not opposed to seeing an evolution of the Apple Store design.

As to the Best Buy-colored blue Apple polo shirts, however… they might look a heck of a lot nicer in person, but as someone who worked at the company in its "wear anything under and around your Apple shirt as long as your lanyard and logo are visible" heyday, I can't see myself getting excited about this change. Tan slacks? No identifying lanyard or business cards? I get that your average Apple Store employee may not dress the way a Burberry salesperson might, but I see that — the personality of the employee — as a bonus, not a drawback. It made everyone human and approachable in a way I don't think this new outfit will. It might sell more $5000 Apple Watches, but I worry about losing a bit of retail's soul in the process.

Ally: When I imagine an Apple Store with Apple Watch displays, I imagine the type of layout you see when you walk into a large department store like Selfridge's. I'm not quite sure why and maybe it wouldn't make sense in an Apple Store. However, in my mind a section for Apple Watch complete with jewelry cases and then you walk to the next designated area and you have displays that show off headphones and audio. Similar to how you walk from iMacs in the technology section of Selfridge's and then you walk 5 feet and you're in a mini Bose or GoPro store that's catered to their layout.

As far as uniforms, GTFO. I don't think I'll get used to that in an Apple Store. Employees having their own personality in those stores is part of what I think makes employees much more approachable. Don't take that away.

Peter: Gold for command, blue for science, red for operations and security. Everything I know about fashion I learned from Star Trek.

Apple's austere presentation for its products enables the products to lead the customer experience, not the setting. Whatever Apple does to it stores, I hope this basic design philosophy remains in place.

Rene: Apple's focus on a small subset of high quality materials is classic — timeless even. Like gray interfaces, they face into the background and let the products be the stars. They've started to amp up their photography, though. They've gone from those products in super-focus on sterile white backgrounds to frames filled with people and art and life. It's a subtle but profound change.

I don't think we'll be seeing couches in Apple stores any time soon-as-in-ever, but I do think we'll continue to see those kind of evolutions. It's the perception of change here that's important. Apple Retail should never be boring but it should never be alien either.

As to the new blue and beige duds… I share Ren's concerns. I'm hoping they won't look as Best Buy in person as they do in the mock ups. But I'll miss some of the old style and old trappings. I'm all for new, as long as it's improved, and with trends, only time can tell.

On the checkout process

Ally: I've used EasyPay numerous times in Apple Stores. Unfortunately, it solves about as many problems as it creates for employees. Mainly because multiple item support is obnoxious and because people that don't understand the system can actually create more questions and headaches for employees. For those of us that want to walk in and buy a case and walk out, it's great. Other than that, most customers don't know it exists and that should change.

Peter: Apple already makes it dead easy to buy new products, if you're invested enough to understand the ecosystem and learn how to download an app and sign in using your Apple ID, so you can pay for things. I'm not sure how much easier Apple can make this experience.

Rene: Apple has more customer service staff on the floor than most stores have customers. Sometimes, however, even that doesn't seem to be enough. I like the self-checkout aspect of the Apple Store App, but only being able to scan and pay for one item at a time can be a drag, especially when you're stocking up for the holidays. Can we have multi-item checkout please?

As a Canadian, I'm still waiting for — and endlessly complaining about waiting for — Apple Pay. Hopefully that makes the process even more efficient for when the app doesn't or can't work.

Ren: Much agreed with Rene on the ease of self checkout, but also the lack of multi-item checkout. There's also gotta be a better way to advertise and explain the self-checkout process: During the busiest times on the floor, there are often no employees available to assist customers who have questions about EasyPay or getting bags for their lower-cost items. I don't know if that means making a single employee — say, like the concierges at the front of the store? — available for these issues, but it's definitely an area worth improving.

On the Genius Bar

Ally: I'll be the first one to admit that I'm extremely picky about my devices. It's part of the reason I buy Apple products. Hell, I've walked into an Apple Store because my Home button "creaked" funny and walked out with a new iPhone, no questions asked.

Best experience? I had consistent display issues with the first generation 27" iMac Apple ever produced. I had it in for service three separate times. The fourth time was almost 2.5 years after my initial purchase. I voiced my concern over this happening again after I was out of warranty in a few months. Minutes later a manager walked out with a brand new 27" iMac box that exceeded the specifications of my current model. I paid for another Apple Care protection plan and walked out with a brand new iMac. I didn't even ask for one. And to think I couldn't even get Sony to take responsibility for a bad battery in a Vaio laptop.

Worst experience? A genius that was having a bad day and complained slightly about swapping out an iPad with a bad Power button a few days after the warranty was up. Hey, I'll take it.

No where else on the planet will you receive the customer service experience you get into an Apple Store. The only thing Apple needs to make more obvious is that you need an appointment beforehand. Many folks don't realize this and they walk in upset when they find out they can't be seen for hours.

As for repairs, I like that Apple is making that more accessible. I know some folks want to see Apple do even more but I get why they don't. No one wants to wait hours to have their phone back. Apple's concern is the overall experience you have in their stores. Any repair that is going to take away from that, isn't worth their time. They'll give you a new device and send your old one out to be repurposed. It's a balance and Apple's done a stellar job so far.

$110 for a new screen on an iPhone 6 with zero warranty and no insurance? How could you possibly complain?

Peter: My experience with the Apple Geniuses has been faultless, but I've heard plenty of horror stories that reinforce to me that Apple's batting record isn't perfect vetting people who know what they're talking about or explain it effectively enough. But the real problem with the Genius Bar is the wait to talk with someone. You have to make an appointment at just about every Apple Store, which puts people off. No one likes to wait, and no one wants fixing their phone or their Mac to be like bringing the dog to the vet, either.

Rene: A couple years ago my iPhone 4s was hit by New Year's event fireworks. It mangled the oleophobic coating and made it feel like sandpaper. I brought it in, got a stern lecture on taking better care of my iPhone, and left with a brand new one, already restoring via iCloud, without being charged a penny.

I took my MacBook Pro in a couple of months ago for a battery swap and received just as great service. Apple Genius is so good, my only concern is how Apple can scale it as they become more and more popular.

Maybe they'll need a bigger bar?

Ren: We're gonna need a bigger bar, Rene. Or a better one. It's difficult on a number of levels: one, there's only so much room in a retail store for repairs, especially for a service that often times results in no sales. Two, as more and more stores open, the talent required to be an Apple Genius has lowered, and that's resulted in a variety of skill levels and proficiencies. The Genius area has also traditionally been shared by the Personal Training (One to One) program, Personal Setups, and workshops in most stores; while I'd hate to see those go away, they're also valuable real estate space — especially for iPhone swaps.

What I'd like to see is more initial triage done online: There are questions and tests a user can run online at home, and being able to put that into your initial Genius record may mean less time spent at the Apple Store — both at the table and in the back room.

On training and workshops

Ren: As a part-time One to One trainer for almost two years, I can't emphasize enough how special that program was for its recipients. It was incredible to work with people of all ages, nationalities, disabilities, and technical levels, and taught me a whole lot about how best to help users with their technology. We taught people how to fish, rather than catching fish for them, and that kind of learning almost always begets excitement and more learning.

It makes me sad to think that it might get shuffled into the background at the expense of a bigger Genius Bar or an Apple Watch area, and I'm hoping that Ahrendts understands the true value of what these sessions and workshops hold.

Ally: I've never particularly had any experience with One to One but I know several people that have and I see the sessions when I'm in the store. I also have a good friend who works in an Apple Store and has done training sessions and hosted events like Hour of Code. He loves doing it just as much as customers love attending. This kind of training is something that makes Apple unique and it adds so much value to the brand. I'd like to see Apple find a way to offer this on a different level that address some of the concerns Peter has voiced. And I certainly hope they don't downscale this kind of offering at the expense of needing floor space.

Peter: The problem right now is that the traffic level in most stores is so high, retaining any of what you've learned can be difficult, at best. General workshops for basic stuff might work well in most Apple Store settings, but I think detailed one-on-one training and more involved efforts to teach people lasting skills has to happen in a more calm environment conducive to learning.

Rene: My mom went for one-on-one training when she got her iPhone 5c and loved it. My godkids went to Hour of Code and left thinking they could make video games. That Apple provides so much free and cheap training is of enormous value to their customers.

I do wish some of the more advanced training, like pro-apps, and some of the cooler events, like developer and artists talks, were available at some of the smaller stores as well. I understand supply and demand, but I experience envy and want.

On education and business

Ally: My complaints here are the same as Peter's and Ren's. Not a lot of people know these services exist. Even has a small business or a self employed individual, Apple offers wonderful support that consists of IT support, discounts, and much more. The same goes for education. Apple needs to find a way to expand this service. I'd also like to see some lower price points for small business. Some folks can't justify the hundreds of dollars a year but maybe something scaled back that offers a compromise would be a happy middle ground.

Peter: Apple has a two-tiered approach to education and business: It can and will handle plenty of it through the Apple Stores, but it's not afraid to defer clients it think will be better handled to Apple Specialists in the area that can tailor their service and support to suit special cases. I earnestly hope that will continue, because there remains a thriving network of third-party specialists willing and able to serve, if Apple's willing to give them a seat at the table.

Rene: I've no experience with education, though I do hope my godkids get to go on one of the field trips Apple offers next year. I do have experience with the business reps and it's been terrific. If you're ordering a lot of devices, if you need special configurations, or if you have questions, they're super helpful. There's also a discount for some purchases, which is a nice bonus.

The only negative is that I think not enough people are aware of the services.

Ren: Apple's education services (like Apple Camp) and business department aren't widely advertised to the average consumer, but they're very specially targeted to schools and small businesses in the area. They work precisely because they're not overwhelmed or overcrowded. I am hoping to see more Hour of Code-like workshops for kids, however. I went to one in New York City and it was incredible to observe; the more children we can get excited about coding now, the better.

On the Apple Watch

Ally: I'm not quite sure how I feel about Apple Watch in retail aside from the fact that I want to see every part of it before choosing. That's a unique problem for Apple. Their stores are so crowded already. It's going to take some clever displays in order to make that work.

Peter: I think that for many of us, it's going to be enough to present the Apple Watch in the regular store setting, and that'll be what we need to get drawn in to use it, decide if it's right for us, and buy it. But I understand that customers used to buying high-end precision timepieces have a different retail expectation. I'm very curious to see how Apple balances this approach in a way that won't alienate either the 99 percent or the 1 percent.

Ren: From what I've heard about Ahrendts, Peter, I suspect the 1 percent is a big factor in the refactoring of stores for Apple Watch displays. The Apple Watch Edition will likely make or break the fashion-end of the digital watch industry (so far pretty much non-existent), and you know someone with Burberry in their pedigree will do everything they can to give the Watch a smash entrance.

I'm secretly hoping that this really won't be too different than the Apple Store's current layout, just with those awesome glass-covered tables we saw at the Apple Watch press event in lieu of your traditional Apple wooden table. When you think about it, Apple stores really aren't that different than your average jewelry store, with display tables, plenty of salesfolk, and no clear place to check out.

Rene: The Apple Watch is going to change things. It's the size of an iPad but it's the breadth and scope of something beyond even the iPhone. People will need to choose their sizes and their materials, and they'll need to choose their bands. It's not that different from choosing a screen size, color, and case, but it's more personal and more fashionable. And actual gold is more involved than gold finishes.

Where will they be placed? How will they be demonstrated and tried on? How will they be serviced and exchanged? There have been reports of special areas, safes, and scales, but how it all plays out will be fascinating — and telling — to see.

Bottom line

Ren: I went to the very first Apple Store opening, and half of my family has worked for Apple at some point. I want Apple's retail operations to continue, and continue proudly. But as wildly successful as the stores are, they can't just exist on the success of their past. They have to evolve. How they evolve is up to Ahrendts and Apple. There are going to be a lot of overseas stores opened in the next year, and those may well sport prototypes of the design direction for the future, as well as areas for the Apple Watch.

Ally: For Apple retail to continue offering the same great experience they've always offered, they're going to have to scale. Luckily, scaling is something Apple is very good at. Just look at how they've scaled production and assembly lines to meet demand. No other company in the world has scaled manufacturing the way they have. Retail is the same concept. It's just going to take the right people to figure out how. The current store setup is going to have to evolve to house an all new kind of customer. I'm not sure what the solution is but I hope it doesn't come at the expense of scaling back the already great services Apple retail offers.

Perhaps I have an "I want it all" mentality and that isn't realistic. But then again, the experience I get at an Apple Store now isn't something I would have thought to be realistic in any retail environment 15 years ago.

Peter: I think that for many of us, it's going to be enough to present the Apple Watch in the regular store setting, and that'll be what we need to get drawn in to use it, decide if it's right for us, and buy it. But I understand that customers used to buying high-end precision timepieces have a different retail expectation. I'm very curious to see how Apple balances this approach in a way that won't alienate either the 99 percent or the 1 percent.

Rene: Apple Retail, like much of the rest of Apple, is mindblowingly successful. Part of Apple's model for success, however, is continually obsoleting themselves. They don't care if you buy an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, as long as you're buying from them. Likewise, Angela Ahrendts in now senior vice president of Apple Retail and Apple Online stores. Those lines could start to blur in interesting ways.

Sure, people joke about selling Apple apparel at retail the way they do at the Company Store in Cupertino, and joked — I swear, joked! — about Apple buying Blue Bottle or Philz and putting a coffee bar next to the Genius Bar. But the truth is, Apple Retail will need to evolve both to serve Apple's expanding product line and the sensibilities of their customers. Luckily, evolution is something Apple's typically very good at.

Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.