Apple’s Commitment to Brick-and-Mortar and the Future of Retail
Dan Healy
Dan Healy

Apple’s Commitment to Brick-and-Mortar and the Future of Retail

Dan Healy, COO

While the iPhone X may have grabbed the most headlines out of the recent Apple Keynote, the most exciting announcement had nothing to do with facial recognition or wireless charging, but rather the tech giant’s staunch commitment to what SVP of Retail, Angela Ahrendts, referred to as their “largest product:” brick-and-mortar stores.

For decades now, online shopping has threatened offline retail outlets with extinction, and some of those threats have come to fruition (rest in peace, Blockbuster). More recently, mobile shopping has untethered consumers from their computers, putting even more pressure on stores to compete with their digital counterparts. But when the world’s largest innovator is putting their stores front and center and online pioneer Amazon is putting their weight behind recently-acquired Whole Foods, it’s more than clear that rumors of brick-and-mortar’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

What Apple has done to thrive in an age when countless other retail chains are struggling is hardly a secret. They’ve long done away with inventory clutter at the front of the house, focusing instead on offering customers an experience that reflects the clean and efficient design and one-to-one service that has made their products stand out in a crowded market.

Go to any mall in America, and the difference between shopping at the Apple store and virtually any other store in the building will be stark. But that’s changing as more and more retailers are realizing that true retail innovation doesn’t arise from the struggle between online and offline stores but from the convergence of the two.

Known for giving makeovers to their customers, Sephora is now giving its retail experience a makeover with the introduction of Sephora Studios. Less than half the size of their normal retail outlets, what the stores lack in floor space is more than made up for in technology and personalized service. Among the offerings are customized makeovers, touchscreen devices delivering scientifically precise color matching, and same-day pickup of orders.

The first Sephora Studio is already open in Boston and has been a resounding success.

Across the country in San Francisco, fashion label Reformation is making shopping for clothes as pleasant and simple as buying a MacBook. There are no clothing racks to be found out front. Instead, shoppers are greeted by a more open and airy layout with select outfits on display and touchscreens for browsing the full inventory. Tap an item you like in your size and when you arrive in the dressing room, it will be waiting there for you.

If no stock out front sounds bold, how about no in-store stock at all? That’s the approach taken at Nordstrom Local, a new concept store from the 116-year-old department store chain that holds no actual inventory. Instead of sifting through clothing racks, shoppers enjoy a glass of wine or espresso while meeting with an expert personal stylist. Purchased items are available same-day for pickup or home-delivery–after being tailored in-store for a perfect fit, of course.

The advantages offered to consumers by these inventive stores are clear: less stressful, more efficient, more personalized shopping that feels like an experience rather than a chore. But the benefits to retailers go way beyond customer satisfaction. Smaller footprints translate to big reductions in real estate costs, and touch-screen browsing offers valuable data on everything from shopping habits to fashion trends. Moreover, when ideas are more valuable than overhead, the playing field between billion-dollar behemoths and small startups becomes much more level.

Interactive dressing room mirrors, checkout-free purchases, drone delivery; they’re already a reality and coming soon to a store near you. And this is only the beginning, of course. These developments will seem ordinary before long as they make way for even more innovation in retail spaces.

Over the next decade, breakthroughs will materialize in surprising forms from unexpected sources, and they’ll happen so rapidly that predicting them even a few years out will be next to impossible. But one thing is for certain: The future of retail belongs to those who embrace creativity and technology and thrive on taking smart risks.