If you haven’t heard of Gary Allen, he’s known worldwide as one of the biggest fans of Apple’s retail stores. He passed away this week from brain cancer at the age of 67.
Allen adored Apple, to the point of attending 140 of its store openings around the world.
He’d hang out with other diehard fans in line who would hold spots for bathroom breaks, get food for one another and trade chargers, and he became something of an icon with staff.
Upon first reading about him, he seemed like that particular breed of middle-aged man that is very excited by gadgets and digital innovations.
A bit like my Dad, who owns over five variants of speakers, two iPads, a laptop, an iPhone, several cameras and an impressive array of torches, even thought he doesn’t know which one is the play button on the Sky remote.
But there’s something to be said for a brand that inspires that much of a cult following from a customer.
People like Allen show that Steve Job’s vision of Apple stores being a place worth seeking out has very much come to fruition. If you’ve got someone like Allen hanging out at your stores, surely you’re doing something right.
Allen paid very close attention to the details in which Apple crafted its stores: the materials used, the way products were displayed and the way staff were hired.
The insights he gained by closely scrutinising the retailer show how Apple made itself a world-class retailer.
"It’s not just about the products,” Allen said to Forbes. “Look at the way Apple hires. Look at the way Apple managers coach employees. Look at the whole picture."
Here are five lessons from Allen, about Apple.
1. Apple doesn’t specifically hire people with retail experience or a huge knowledge of tech, Allen says. Instead, it looks for people with the right attitude, who are enthusiastic about the product and can make the retail experience memorable for customers.
“Apple is not looking for people with vast experience and knowledge,” he said. “Apple is looking for a type. You do not need retailing or computer repair experience to be hired. You do, however, need passion, spirit, and a collaborative attitude.” Interestingly, a former Apple Store executive gleaned the knowledge that teachers made great employees because in the early 2000s, consumers needed to be educated on what computers could do.
2. Allen noticed Apple is obsessive about the visual aesthetics of its stores, and its attention to detail and cleanliness were well documented on Allen's Twitter account.
“If you’ve ever been to an Apple Store opening you’ll know how meticulous they are about cleaning the windows, the floors, and the shelving,” Allen pointed out to Forbes. “It’s almost to the point of being absurd.” But he said it works, as the stark, spacious stores have become iconic and unique to Apple.
3. The reason Apple has been so successful is because it has created a community, Allen says.
Apple’s former senior VP of retail Ron Johnson said last year that just one of every 100 visitors makes a purchase when visiting a store. “The other 99 are presumably heading to the Genius Bar, checking out new products, retrieving their email, tagging along with friends or relatives, or attending a training session or live music event,” Allen said. “The stores have created communities of enthusiasts for everything that technology empowers, including art, music, writing, games and social networking.”
4. However, alongside building a community, Allen says the paying customers are looked after too.
"The stores have also created buyers who appreciate being able to see, handle and use the company’s products before handing over their money," he says. "It’s a combination that few other retailers have been able to duplicate." Experiencing palpable things will forever be the drawcard of the bricks and mortar, and Allen says Apple's hit the nail right on the head.
5. Lastly, Allen says part of the reason Apple staff are so great is because there aren't commissions on its sales floors.
He would know, after all - he had a special bond with Apple's staff and regularly interacted with them worldwide. "It’s not all about closing the deal, it’s about building relationships between customers and the Apple brand," he says. "They know you’ll buy something eventually." As one salesperson explained to Forbes, staff make more money by getting promoted, and they get promoted by the results on customer-satisfaction forms. This means the salespeople value helping the customer out over pushing a sale.
Now for my Apple experience. A couple of years ago, I shattered the back of my iPhone screen and got the repair priced in New Zealand. I was gobsmacked to learn my phone would have to be sent away for four weeks at the hefty cost of $300. On a whim, I held out on getting it fixed and walked into an Apple store off the street while on holiday in the US. There, I was quoted US$30 for the repair. Stoked with the price but nervous about whether they could fix it in time, I explained I was only there for two weeks. "Not a problem!" The guy replied cheerily. He popped out back and replaced the screen within five minutes.
If you tick all of the boxes Apple is ticking (incredibly friendly and efficient customer service, beautiful stores and building a community) maybe your company will find its Allen.