After Leaving, Retail Chief Recalls The Early Years

November 21, 2011

People come to Apple stores for the experience—and they’re willing to pay a premium for that, according to the man who conceptualized the chain and oversaw its development over 10 years. In an on-line blog posting for the Harvard Business Review titled, “What I Learned Building the Apple Store,” Sr. V-P Retail Ron Johnson repeated many of the success elements of Apple retail that he has mentioned over the years. Johnson graduated from Harvard University’s prestigious business school before starting a career in retail. Essentially, he wrote, “You have to create a store that’s more than a store to people.” A key element of that experience is that the Apple store staff isn’t focused on selling, “It’s focused on building relationships and trying to make people’s lives better,” Johnson explained. “That may sound hokey, but it’s true.” Cross-selling, upselling and encouraging customers to buy more doesn’t enrich their lives or deepen their relationship with the company. “It just makes their wallets lighter,” Johnson said. Other retailers shouldn’t be asking how to create stores that sell $15 million a year, Johnson said. “They should be asking, ‘How do we reinvent the store to enrich our customers’ lives?'” He acknowledged “bumps” along the way for Apple’s retail chain, recalling that few people came to the Genius Bars in the early years. “We even had Evian water in refrigerators for customers to try to get them to sit down and spend time at the bar,” he recalled. Johnson also participated in a formal interview with an HRB writer, in which he talked about translating his Apple retail experience to JC Penney, which he took over as CEO earlier this month. He mentioned that he personally interviewed each Apple store manager to explain who he was and his values. “The people I hire trust me because of this personal connection,” he said. The interviews also helped Johnson make sure managers were right for the team. “Everyone has a passion or mission in life that if matched with the right job will allow them to flourish.” The entire December 2011 issue interview is available at HBR for a fee.

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