At Fast Company’s Innovation Festival in New York, Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s SVP retail and online stores, discussed where the company is going in retail and the uniting of its bricks-and-mortar and online stores. “The store is kind of like a big giant product,” she said.
Brought in by CEO Tim Cook in 2013, the former Burberry CEO was charged with transforming Apple retail as the company moved into wearable tech, new markets such as China and new services like Apple Pay.
“How should we handle Apple Pay?” asked Ahrendts. “How should we help customers download Apple Music? They’re not products we’re selling—we get no credit for doing that at all. Yet that’s good for Apple and the customer.”
Apple did get credit for launching Apple Watch exclusively in-store. “We needed to get the kinks out with this incredibly new form factor,” explained Ahrendts. She said the store experience is evolving like the iPhone and Mac, becoming “sleeker and smarter.”
Speaking of Apple’s fragmented retail experience, “I asked Tim a very simple question: Why do we do it this way?” said Ahrendts. “He said, ‘I don’t know—we’ve always done it this way.’”
It’s been two years since she was poached from Burberry with much ado about it all, and then was named as the highest-paid female executive in the US in 2014, with a combined package of $82.6 million. But aside from occasional LinkedIn posts on management techniques, Ahrendts has kept a low profile.
Instead, Jonathan Ive, chief design officer of Apple, has become the face of the brand. Even Paul Deneve, the former Saint Laurent chief executive who joined Apple to lead special projects, “has been more visible than Ms. Ahrendts,” reports the New York Times.
Ahrendts defended her under-the-radar profile in an interview she granted with Fortune— which ranked her the 16th-most-powerful woman—only after the magazine said it would publish with or without her participation.
Ahrendts explains her public absence by saying she wanted to “first listen and learn,” according to the New York Times.
But with her Fast Company appearance, she is coming out from behind the scenes. Ahrendts is also slated to be a centerpiece speaker at Bloomberg’s Year Ahead Summit this week.
During her first six months on the job, Ahrendts had her team analyze which cities in the world would have the greatest populations by 2025. “If we’re going to do 10-year leases, that’s what we want to invest in,” she told Fast Company.
With 20 of the top 100 cities in the next decade likely to be in China, Apple is ramping up there and investing in its own mobility program that relocates retail employees globally for cross-pollination. “We need not only to move culture into China, but we need to move our best Chinese employees all over the world,” Ahrendts said.
She is also focused on better internal communications with her 60,000 Apple retail employees. “My kids were visiting from London and all they were doing in the car was WhatsApp and Snapchat,” she told Fast Company. “It hit me: That’s the way we should communicate.” Ahrendts now delivers to her employees a weekly video of three thoughts in under three minutes.
A recent retail innovation, “The Avenue,” will display accessories in Apple stores in a way that evokes shop windows on Main Street in a small town instead of hung on a wall.
The first Apple stores opened in United Arab Emirates last month, one at the Mall of the Emirates and the other at Yas Mall in Abu Dhabi. “The Emirates will have the full global assortment in these stores,” said Ahrendts in an interview with Gulf News, Apple’s first-ever interview in the Middle East. “We’re evolving features worldwide everyday to react to the markets.”
The Dubai store will have trees. “The genius bar will start to evolve to more of a genius grove area, if you will. The trees just make it cooler and warmer, [with] all of the little dabs of colour that come from them. So hopefully it will be a more calming experience versus the more hectic experience that we get in many of our flagship cities.”
A calmer, more inviting and locally relevant experience is “a big, philosophical part of the evolution of Apple retail,” Ahrendts said. But one thing that will remain is the in-store tables promoting Apple’s hardware. “Jony Ive designed that table—that table is iconic, that table will not change,” she added.