I visited the Apple Store in Polo Park earlier today with the intention of finding out whether they had any Magic Mouses (mice?) in stock and spending some Christmas money purchasing one if they did. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect this sort of thing to be a fairly straightforward, 3 – 5 minute process. Instead, it took 10 or more minutes – I wasn’t counting – and my wife ended up in a verbal altercation with another customer. However, this is not an isolated incident, I’ve been to the store once or twice a month since opening and every time I’ve attempted to purchase something it has not been a pleasant transaction. The customer service stinks.
I believe the problem is entirely due to the lack of a designated “checkout” area. If you haven’t ever stepped foot in an Apple Store, the main staff (I think Apple refers to them as “Concierge”) walk around the store seemingly aimlessly waiting for customers to flag them down, there are no checkout counters or cash registers. I can see the logic behind this type of set up: without a designated check-out area you don’t have long, ugly lines forming around the store and you don’t waste retail space. Without designated “cashiers,” all staff are able to help customers with any task. In theory, it’s more efficient than a traditional retailer.
In practice, the whole system breaks down if there are equal numbers of customers wanting help and staff.
It’s not always entirely clear whether a staff member is helping a customer or not; they may need to run to another part of the store to do one thing or another – in this situation, you find yourself trying to flag down someone who’s either ignoring you or has to sluff you off. In and of itself, this is not a problem unique to the Apple Store, this happens at any retailer when you’re trying to get help on a busier day. At the Apple Store because there are no designated checkouts, you’re forced in to this customer-unfriendly situation even if you do not need any help with your purchase. At best it’s a minor annoyance, at worst it doesn’t leave me feeling like a very valuable customer. I almost feel like this behavior serves to reinforce the old Apple-elitist attitudes, i.e. Apple only has a limited amount of time to dole out to the peons. Not only that, this type of system favors the visible and vocal customer, a dis-service to the typical-introverted-geek that makes up the core of Apple’s customer-base.
Most retails stores have a queuing area is because it works, it’s an accepted shopping convention that all customers know how to interact with. The key component in good customer service is setting expectations, a queue is a good way to accomplish this. If I see 10 people waiting at a checkout I can roughly estimate how long it will take me buy something or get service, I can adjust my patience accordingly. With staff randomly scattered around the store I’m not able to easily determine how many staff are engaged with a customer, how many are free and how many customers are waiting on a giving staff member – i.e. I don’t have enough information to calculate how much time to expect to be spending in the store. Queues also make it very easy to distinguish between customers waiting on service and customer who are just browsing or staring into space. When informal queues form around a given staff member it’s impossible to tell who’s “in line” and who’s not. As I alluded to earlier, this can cause the customer who’s “next” to yell at your wife for not waiting her turn.
The Apple Store is chaos. Whenever I try to get help I feel like a little lost puppy. Maybe that’s how Steve Jobs wants it. If I could have made this purchase online, I would have.