Apple Chicago: Don’t Call It a Store, It’s a Town Square


Michigan Avenue Chicago waterfront Apple store opening October 2017

As shopping increasingly becomes a retail experience, and online commerce challenges in-store, brands are jockeying to elevate the customer journey. Few brands are setting the bar as high as Apple, which is pioneering a new retail model that aims to transform the notion of what a “store” means in 2017 (and beyond).

Apple, Interbrand’s reigning “Best Global Brand,” has passed 500 retail stores worldwide, generating more than $42 billion in revenue. In 2013 hired Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts as SVP of Retail to oversee and rethink its customer experience after turning Burberry’s stores into digitally-imbued experiences. The flagship Apple stores that have opened under her watch feature plazas or town squares as the hub of each store, including its San Francisco store that opened last year. But the bar has been raised in Chicago, as you’ll see below.

Apple retail store Michigan Avenue Chicago store opening

As Ahrendts elaborated at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit last October, Apple’s new retail vision is to create an agora or gathering place in each new major store opening as a place for its “Today at Apple” hands-on interactive learning events—and much more. The physical space is designed for inspiration, collaboration, conversation, lingering—serving as the heartbeart and hum of life for each location.

Today at Apple

Creating a home for “Today at Apple” is part of the brand’s drive to create “a modern-day town square, where everyone is welcome in a space where the best of Apple comes together to connect with one another, discover a new passion, or take their skill to the next level,” said Ahrendts in May. “At the heart of every Apple store is the desire to educate and inspire the communities we serve.”

On the Waterfront

Michigan Avenue Chicago Apple Store October 2017

That philosophy is nowhere more evident than at the new Apple North Michigan Avenue store that just opened in Chicago. Located in a stunning building on the city’s waterfront, the goal is to serve as “a gathering place for the local community.”

In addition to boasting all of Apple’s latest retail innovations, the store will give back to the community by hosting “year-round Today at Apple programming, building on Chicago’s city-wide initiative to enliven the Riverwalk.”

Michigan Avenue Chicago waterfront Apple store opening October 2017

Today at Apple Chicago

To celebrate the opening, Apple Michigan Avenue will host “The Chicago Series,” a month-long set of events that will provide attendees with the tools to pursue their passions, from photography and art to music, coding and app design.

Michigan Avenue Chicago waterfront Apple store opening October 2017 Karlie Kloss and Angela Ahrendts

“When Apple opened on North Michigan Avenue in 2003, it was our first flagship store, and now we are back in Chicago opening the first in a new generation of Apple’s most significant worldwide retail locations,” said Ahrendts, seen at the store opening above with model/entrepreneur Karlie Kloss.

“Apple Michigan Avenue exemplifies our new vision where everyone is welcome to experience all of our incredible products, services and inspiring educational programs in the heart of their city,” she added. “We can’t wait to welcome the community for opening weekend, and to launch ‘The Chicago Series’ with our incredible local partners.”

A Cook’s Tour

“A store’s probably not what you should call this,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told BuzzFeed News in a video interview (above) at the opening. “We should probably come up with a different name, because what happens here is service and support, so it has a much larger role than going to buy. It’s a part of the community, not merely a store.”

Michigan Avenue Chicago waterfront Apple store opening October 2017 Tim Cook and first customer

“Some stores are for selling,” Cook elaborated in the interview below. “In fact, all stores are for selling. That’s actually just a small part of what we do in our stores. Our stores are about service, supporting customers, being a place where people can discover and explore our products, and education and a place where people can connect.”

Being a teacher, a connector and an inspiring collaborator is in the brand’s DNA, he added: “If you think about Apple’s history, we’ve always been about the arts, we’ve always been a great community for the artist, the musician, theater, for the scientist, for people creating—for the creators of the world. So people seek programming, from photography to art to coding. We want to help train the next generation to write mobile apps, we think that’s huge. So we’re reaching out to people of all ages here.”

Deep Dish Culture

Apple Michigan Avenue Chicago store opening

Chicago is a great fit for that heritage, as Apple observed, because “Chicago’s creative roots run deep. It’s where house music and rock and roll first took the stage. Where world-famous architecture lives. And where contemporary art thrives. Along the Chicago riverfront where the city was founded, we’re opening Apple Michigan Avenue. A space for the next generation of creative pioneers to come together, connect, and share their talent.”

Apple worked closely with the City of Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office so the new store has access directly to the Chicago River from Pioneer Court, now linked by granite staircases on both sides of the transparent store, with grand views from the plaza to the river and beyond.

Apple Chicago Michigan Avenue Riverwalk waterfront exterior

Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer stated, “Apple Michigan Avenue is about removing boundaries between inside and outside, reviving important urban connections within the city. It unites a historic city plaza that had been cut off from the water, giving Chicago a dynamic new arena that flows effortlessly down to the river.”

Where Ideas Sing

Michigan Avenue Chicago waterfront Apple store opening October 2017

To celebrate the grand opening, which saw the riverfront plaza packed with first day visitors, Apple partnered with two renowned Chicago artists to create an original song, “Where Ideas Sing”—a phrase emblazoned on the building’s exterior. The anthem was written and performed by hip-hop artist Saba with lyrics by artist Matthew Hoffman.

Apple Chicago waterfront store Where Ideas Sing

Apple is also working with Chicago’s schools to get coding into the curriculum. “We’re working with various community colleges and schools including the Chicago public system to get coding taught in all schools,” Cook told BuzzFeed. “In our view, coding should be a required language.”

Why Retail Matters

With the majority of its products sold online and by mobile, and with many brands scaling back their physical retail footprints, physical retail is a bigger focus than ever for Apple. For Apple, the store is the brand experience, with mobile and digital technology creating a seamless foundation for interactions, alsong with space for a conference room for local businesses, a redesigned Genius Bar and more greenery.

As Cook also told BuzzFeed, he’s excited to integrate emerging technologies such as Augmented Reality into the physical retail experience. “It’s going to change the way that people shop. It will change the way that gaming is done. It will change the way that people learn, it will really change everything. It will change the way that business is conducted.”

Apple North Michigan Avenue Chicago store town square

Targeting the sweet spot of today’s consumerism, the 85 million millennials between the ages of 18 to 37, Apple is focused on the customer experience, space for community and interaction, leveraging technology to enhance the purchase process, and dedicated space and activities for kids.

Shared Learning

That’s why Today at Apple programming includes free daily sessions across photography, music creation, art and design, coding and entrepreneurship. Apple launches this month a dozen new Today at Apple sessions including Kid’s Hour: Book Club, Street-Style Photography and Teacher Tuesday: Coding with Swift. Today at Apple programming is available in all Apple Stores worldwide.

As Forbes notes, “Over 50 million millennials are already over 27, and millions of millennial women already have kids. Retailers that want to engage this generation successfully must solve the problems presented by trying to shop with children, particularly young ones. Those who provide great solutions will be rewarded with loyal millennial customers.”

The new store is at the crossroads of North Michigan Avenue, Pioneer Court and the Chicago River, a literal and metaphorical junction, where year-round Today at Apple programming will enhance the windy city’s Riverwalk.

“Cultural Measures”

As for what will constitute success at the store, Ahrendts told CNBC (above) it’s less about revenue, even if her CFO might beg to differ. “It’s how many people come, how long do they stay. If I could ask them a handful of questions as they left, the original reason retail was created was to enrich lives. So by the time that they left, if they attended a Today at Apple session, I’d love to be able to say, ‘Did you learn something? Were you inspired? Did we enrich your life? Did you connect with other people in the community that maybe you didn’t know before?’ And we are measuring those, we are working with a firm and we’re going to get some very cultural measures, if you will, and then of course there’s all the hard metrics that one would expect in retail.”

It’s less about whether that leads to sales, Ahrendts added, but about “building a relationship. If we can look you in the eyes and create a life-long, loyal relationship—you trust us, you trust what we’re teaching you, it’s what we’re offering you to purchase—because we’re not selling you. It’s no different than fashion. Don’t you go back to someone who’s taken care of you and who you trust to make you a better version of yourself?”

The Chicago Series

The “The Chicago Series,” a set of five programs focused on the intersection of technology and liberal arts will be hosted for four weeks and were co-created with local non-profits and creative organizations.

The first series includes:

· “Accelerate Your Startup Idea with 1871” inspires participants to develop a startup business concept that will positively impact the City of Chicago and provides them solutions to turn their idea into a business. The selected finalist will receive ongoing support from 1871, a non-profit digital startup incubator, and Apple.
· Participants in “Create Collaborative Art” will contribute to the creation of a new piece of work with local artist Theaster Gates and the Black Monks of Mississippi, a Chicago-based performance art ensemble.
· “Prototype a Civic App with BLUE 1647” encourages everyone to learn how to conceive and design an app concept that serves community needs, rewarding the top app developer with ongoing mentorship from BLUE 1647, a local tech innovation center, and Apple.
· “Photograph Chicago with VSCO” teaches aspiring and established photographers how to capture the subtleties of neighborhoods and the people who live there. The best work will be featured at a future Today at Apple program in Chicago and on VSCO’s social media channels.
· “Cultivate Your Voice with Young Chicago Authors” leads participants on a journey of telling stories and defining their voice through poetry, graffiti and rap. Following this program, “The Chicago Series” will wrap with a slam poetry open mic night with Kevin Coval, a leading voice in Chicago’s music community.

A Deeper Look

Designed to be ‘at-one’ with the environment, the Chicago building’s 111-by-98 foot carbon-fiber roof is as thin as possible—resembling a MacBook laptop—and the whole structure is supported by four interior pillars that let the 32-foot glass facades remain unobscured.

In a time when online and digital prevail, Apple, ever on the edge of innovation, is restoring the notion of physical community and providing the space. For a closer look, watch the videos below, starting with the Chicago Sun-Times interview with Stefan Behling, studio head for Apple retail architecture firm Foster + Partners.


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