iPad Smart Signs Increase Info, Don’t Reduce Queues

May 22, 2011

Apple has unveiled the third version of information graphics for its retail stores, switching from static printed cards to iPads mounted in acrylic panels that provide more depth of product information, and an interactivity intended to further engage curious customers. Since the iPads are networked, the new Smart Signs will allow Apple to update product information remotely as features change, promotions begin or when display table configurations change. However, an iPad feature for customers to summon a store Specialist doesn’t seem to solve the problem of quickly serving customers. Rather—at least on the first day—the feature only added to store confusion and customer wait times. Apple stores originally had printed product cards mounted in vertical acrylic holders besides each product. Besides the new iPads, certain signage was updated and the company’s Personal Setup service was expanded to include all major products.

In February 2009 the stores switched to lay-flat acrylic panels, also with printed cards. Both versions had limited space to describe the product, and no space to list options or explain benefits.

During an hour-long visit by IFO to a San Francisco area Apple store, visitors didn’t seem to understand the interactive nature of the iPads. A low percentage of visitors even tried to use the iPads, focusing instead on the products themselves. When they did use them, many visitors didn’t realize the “touch” nature of the screen, and tried to visibly “push” the screen like a vending machine button.

There is one iPad next to each major product, including portables, iPhones, iPads, Apple TV, Mac Pro and iPod touch. The smaller iPod models are mounted in groups with a single iPad.

The iPads are mounted semi-permanently into a clear acrylic block set at a slight slant. The home button is disabled, power runs from beneath the block through a single white cord to the display table power block, and the iPad is alarmed to discourage theft. Lastly, the acrylics are semi-permanently fastened to the table.

The panels are located to the right of each product they represent, about three inches behind the product’s front edge. Amusingly, the iPad display tables have iPads graphics explaining…iPads.

All the information main screens have a similar structure: a photo of the product and its name, a series of “benefit” icons across the middle that display pop-up screens, and a set of buttons along the bottom that lead to new screens.

For example, the portables’ main screen has five icons representing their features: graphics, battery life, unibody construction, Multi-Touch trackpad and included software. Pressing one will display a pop-up screen of specific information (press “X” to close). However, it’s not obvious that the icons are “hot,” since they have no border or other graphic indication.

The bottom row of buttons vary depending on the product, but in general include Features, Compare, New to Mac?, Support and Specialist. For iPhones, a button displays Carriers.

The full power of the new iPads is obvious on the versions next to iPhones. The Carriers button leads to a screen that displays AT&T and Verizon options. Pressing the AT&T link (instead of a button) displays a third screen with a matrix of various plan options: voice plan, data plan and message plan. As you select from the various options, the iPad recalculates the displayed total monthly cost on the right. Further, for AT&T you can display a coverage area map based on an address you enter. There is no such option for Verizon.

By the way, the iPads revert to the main screen after several minutes of inactivity, but only after thoughtfully displaying a small warning pane.

In addition to the information acrylics, the central table acrylics that announce the focus product have also been changed. Previously it was a large stand-up sign with a two-sided, printed card. Now, the acrylic is clear, shorter and has a two-inch frosted area at the top with the focus product written in black. The effect is to de-clutter the tables in general, and to open up the view from one side of the table to another. These new signs are also used at the Personal Training and and Personal Setup tables.

For some reason the stores are are no longer displaying acrylic holders for gift cards, Word software, or brochures for One to One and Joint Venture. Gift cards are now packaged with a hook and displayed on wall pegs adjacent to iPhone cases on the rear side wall.

Help Button

Perhaps more critical to visitors is the Specialist button from the main screen that will summon assistance. As the popularity of Apple’s store has increased, and the number of visitors has gone up, Apple has struggled to maintain a superior experience.

Originally, visitors simply wandered in. Later, Apple created a Concierge position to guide people to their final destination. After the Concierge position disappeared in October 2009, visitors again were less formally greeted. Late last year Apple tasked a rotating set of employees to serve as “expeditor” who asks visitors, “Do you need help with anything?” The expeditor then either directs them to a specific section of the store, or takes their information, and enters it into the Genius Bar Concierge reservation system or the and general help system. Arriving visitors can also request help using Apple’s iOS app on an iPhone or iPod touch that was introduced last June.

However, few people seem to use the iOS app to sign in and request help. As a result, the front door expeditor is often overwhelmed by the number of people approaching, and by the complexity of helping them. Also, many visitors cannot be helped quickly and simply, and walk by the expeditor to look for assistance.

Even people who sign in for help are left to wander the store, as employees also walk around yelling out names—”Frank W.?”

Today’s update puts a Specialist button the main information screen for every iPad. When you press the button, it changes to show your position in the queue of other people waiting. The system then logs the assistance request, which is being monitored by a certain number of Specialists. Their iPod touch POS handheld shows the location of the requestor, but not the person’s name, much like someone pressing the flight attendant button on an airplane.

When a specialist “picks up” a request for help, the system sends a message back to the originating iPad, showing the Specialist’s photo and a message that help is on the way.

But at one store on Sunday, despite the new help system, a single employee was simultaneously solicited for help by three customers. He pointed one customer to the new iPad help system. For the other two, he tried to match up their names with the queue listed on his POS iPod touch. “We’ve just rolled out a new system. Bear with me,” he told the visitors. At another point, three employees were circling the Family Room tables calling out the names of people who had checked in with the expeditor.

Handling queues is a mature science, and involves balancing the number of incoming items and the number of people handling them to maintain an optimum handling time. While there are certain efficiences and techniques that can lower wait queue times, eventually reductions can only be made by increasing the number of available personnel.

Lastly, Apple expanded the Personal Setup service it debuted last year for the iPhone, and later expanded it Macs. Now even the Apple TV is included. [Read one person’s setup experience.]

There is speculation that the retail store iOS app will be updated very soon, and may include build-to-order options or enhanced assistance request features.

The new iPad Smart Sign next to a portable. In the background is the new product focus sign.

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This video shows the interactive nature of the iPad Smart Sign when displaying iPhone carrier pricing options. As you select an item from the matrix (left), the price (right) changes to reflect the total monthly price.

Gift cards are no longer displayed in stands on the display tables. Instead, they have been relegated to hanging on pegs along the rear wall, adjacent to iPhone bumper cases.

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