Browett Leaves, Third-Party Shelves Get Make-Over

November 4, 2012

In a touch of irony just days after Apple retail chief John Browett made a sudden and unexpected departure from the company, the retail stores are reorganizing their third-party product shelves, a point of sale that Browett had passionately tried to bulk up shortly after he arrived. According to sources, the stainless steel shelves in the rear section of each store will now be organized horizontally, and by theme: Storage, Fashion, Creative, App-Based Accessories, Fitness and more. In addition the top row of shelving will disappear, since no ordinary-sized customer could reach so high for products. The new layout provides a more attractive appearance, visitors say, and makes it easier to find products. The change comes just as Apple begins stocking several new products, including the Hue lighting system, Nike+ Fuelband, and various iPhone 5 cases. These same shelves were reportedly the focus of Browett’s passion for increasing Apple store sales and revenues, leading to a revealing confrontation at several Los Angeles-area stores last July.

According to sources, two months after he was hired, Browett visited most of the LA stores to gain insight into store operations and meet employees. During more than one of his visits, employees saw and heard Browett “openly and forcefully” disagreeing with Steve Cano, Sr. Director of International Retail, over Apple’s long-time merchandising methods. Cano had been accompanying Browett on his tours.

According to those present at the stores, Browett was “apoplectic” when he noticed that not all of the third-party products stocked in the back-of-house (BOH) space were on display on the accessory shelving. He demanded an immediate change in merchandising policy—all third-party products in stock must offered for sale on the floor. Such a policy is favored by most mass-market retailers such as Dixons, where Browett previously worked, Best Buy and others. The intent is to make as many products as possible visible to customers, maximizing the chances they will pick one for purchase. Such a policy is antithetical to Apple’s retail philosophy.

In fact, all Apple stores keep stock of many more products than fit on the retail store shelves. The inventory policy dates back to the original Apple retail philosophy of closely limiting the number of products, primarily to present a simplified visual appearance for visitors. But in some cases, it’s also because products are rotated onto the floor for two or three weeks, then pulled off so that another product can be displayed. Other products are stocked BOH so that employees can sell them during an interaction with customers, or for sale through the Personal Pickup program.

During the LA visits, employees heard Cano attempt to explain the reasons behind the company’s merchandising methods. “But Browett wouldn’t have it,” one person says. Browett categorically dismissed Cano’s explanation as the way Apple “used to do business,” and stated that his methods were now the new policy.

Browett was so insistent that at one store, the sources say, he demanded an Inventory Control Specialist to immediately go out to the retail floor and begin restocking the third-party product shelving according to the new policy. The Specialist did.

People who saw the interactions between Browett and Cano say they highlighted the deep division in retail philosophy between the two men, and showed Browett’s disdain for Apple retail’s 10 years of business. The witnesses also sensed Browett’s contempt for those employees who had been a part of the Retail segment since its first day, including Cano.

So, just two months after Browett arrived, employees at the southern California Apple stores quickly came to the conclusion that Browett’s priority was profits and not people. Within three weeks, stories of Browett’s attitude became public, and two months later, he was dismissed.

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