COVID-19 Apple Store changes uncover opportunities for long-term improvements

It’s been seven months since COVID-19 fundamentally changed the way Apple Stores operate. In that time, we’ve learned to accept the realities and limitations of a new store environment. We’ve seen new ideas that work remarkably well. And we’ve even discovered parts of the store experience that are nicer now than before the pandemic.

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Apple Stores across the world have been caught in a loop of closing, reopening, and closing again since February, all while trying to juggle a stack of safety precautions and keeping customers satisfied. These challenges have forced Apple to pare back store functions to their essential elements. COVID-19 inadvertently offered an opportunity to re-evaluate the entire retail experience.

Under the hood, we saw that the engine of Apple Retail is remarkably nimble after nearly 20 years of operation, with just a few cobwebs. Apple has spent the year clearing those cobwebs, tightening loose bolts, and gearing up for the eventual return of a full in-store experience. What lessons from the pandemic should make a lasting impact?

Constant Communication

Informing customers of the new Apple Store experience required a thorough explanation of what to expect and continuous messaging to spread the word. It was a level of transparency we seldom see from Apple. But there’s no reason for that clarity to end after the pandemic. Many people I’ve spoken to have a better understanding of their Apple Store visit today than they did under normal circumstances. It wasn’t uncommon to find customers in years past completely unaware that timely Genius Bar support generally requires an appointment.

Deirdre O’Brien’s letter to customers in May set the tone for summer just as stores began to reopen in the US. Apple’s Temporary Store Closure FAQ document, revamped Delivery and Pickup page, and documentation on how to prepare for an appointment have all been instrumental in setting expectations. Easel signage outside of stores with bright, bold iconography and key information primes customers before they enter, saving time and reducing potential frustration.

Photo: Apple

Shop with a Specialist

Shopping appointments returned to Apple Stores in July after being discontinued a decade ago under the name “Personal Shopping.” With many stores closed to walk-in customers for months, appointments allowed Apple to continue offering in-store shopping and one-on-one service while respecting distancing and capacity guidelines.

Shopping appointments have been a hit for customers outside of the context of the pandemic. Scheduling a session is consistently the best way to ensure you’ll get unwavering attention from a Specialist and a successful store visit. As retail tastes continue to evolve and shoppers demand an immersive experience they can’t get online, continuing Shop with a Specialist after the pandemic would provide an advantage only Apple can offer.

Photo: Isabel Ge Mahe

Memoji Badges

July also brought Memoji Badges to Apple Stores. Every store employee is now equipped with a lanyard tag bearing their name and likeness in Memoji form. Apple created the badges to help employees express themselves while everyone’s face is covered by a mask.

Memoji Badges are just pure fun conversation starters. They lighten the atmosphere in the store and make employees feel more approachable. I hope they stick around long after masks are gone.

Photo courtesy of Ervin

Cleaner Displays

Even before the pandemic, seeing a display iPad covered in germ-laden fingerprints made my skin crawl. Demo devices today look and feel cleaner thanks to COVID-19 sanitation standards. Even though it’s extra work for the store, the peace of mind makes me much more likely to try out a product.

In-store merchandising is cleaner now, too, thanks to physical distancing requirements. Over the past few years, store tables and counters have gradually been crowded by more devices, accessories, and signs. Seeing displays arranged with just a few curated products feels like a return to form.

Photo courtesy of Marci Harris

Express Pickup

Apple recently trialed an Express store concept in Burlingame, California focused on pickup of online orders. Other stores have operated with curbside service during various points throughout the year.

Many people I’ve spoken to during the pandemic were surprised and impressed by the efficiency of their order pickups compared to waiting in-store. While it might not be sustainable to shuttle products to customer vehicles all year long, a faster way to pick up orders would be a fantastic addition to the everyday store experience.

Photo: Danny Cantu

Today at Apple Online

Apple’s creative in-store sessions pivoted online quickly when stores closed. Today at Apple at Home brought the personality of Apple’s Creative Pros to short videos with activities perfect for staying indoors. Online sessions continued all year with programs like Apple Camp at Home for children and upcoming virtual events for Day of the Girl.

There’s more potential for immersive online creative experiences even after in-store sessions restart. In July, I outlined the challenges of going virtual and ways Today at Apple can embrace online sessions while staying true to its core values.

Photo courtesy of padagot

New Store Openings

Apple Store openings are about celebration and gathering together, but Apple has found a way to make it work in 2020. Recent store openings in Bangkok at Central World and Singapore at Marina Bay Sands introduced a new reservation system with appointments to enter the store.

Dedicated fans were treated to an exclusive store opening experience and personally guided by Specialists who provided photography tips and an explanation of the store’s architectural feats.

Nothing can compare to the energy and excitement of a cheering crowd full of high-fives and clapping, but for those lucky enough to secure an opening day reservation in Bangkok and Singapore, the special opening experience is a memory that won’t soon be forgotten.

Follow along on Twitter for daily Apple Store news.

Lead photo courtesy of Brian King.

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Avatar for Michael Steeber Michael Steeber

I’m a Creative Editor passionate about Apple Retail and design. My stories highlight the work of talented artists, designers, and customers through a unique lens of architecture, creativity, and community.

Twitter: @MichaelSteeber