This established a model for a dynamic opening and closing dance, based on a formula developed by the company. “When we reopen our stores, we look at the virus rates in each of the local communities in which we operate, and of course also the local rules,” says O’Brien. “We have become incredibly agile.” So much so that some observers use Apple’s status in a given area as a signal for how Covid is increasing or decreasing.
Apple also decided to make its own masks, because it is Apple. At the start of the crisis, the company donated the millions of N95 masks it had in its inventory (for things like fire season) to medical facilities. Instead of weighing down the system with its replacement needs, Apple brought in its industrial design team to create a face shield first and then its own three-layer mask, a surgical-style face liner with adjustable straps. . When I asked O’Brien what makes this thing a Apple mask, she gave me sort of a circular response, “Because our team designed it, and they did a great job of designing it.” You can’t buy an Apple mask from their online store, so forget about it like a Christmas stocking. The Apple mask isn’t even the one they give you at the store if you show up with your face naked – it’s generic cover. And wearing one is not optional. “If they choose not to wear a mask, we are very happy to serve them online,” says O’Brien.
The stores themselves have evolved to handle the crisis. In some outlets, Apple has set up express storefronts, an all-you-can-eat storefront facade where shoppers can pick up products without entering the store. O’Brien is also proud that the one-on-one interactions that typically take place in stores have gone virtual successfully. Product support “geniuses” as well as “specialists” (Apple’s term for salespeople) can now serve customers from home. O’Brien says that more recently the company has even moved some of its in-store programming, like Today-at-Apple sessions, to digital. “So whatever you come across in a retail store, you can find it online.”
Will it mean a change in the way the company operates its 511 stores, even after the pandemic? O’Brien’s predecessor, former Burberry executive Angela Ahrendts, was less of an operational guru than an avatar of fashion and fantasy emporia, whose legacy made the Apple Stores “town squares.” Where people could hang out, listen to music and soak up the good vibes until they pulled out the credit card to buy a new phone or laptop. O’Brien is more in the daily mold of his boss, Tim Cook. But she now says that when Covid leaves, Apple stores will still be a place people hang out. “We love the stores we have,” she says.
Indeed, in most Chinese stores, the city squares are once again in full swing. But in the coming weeks, US and European customers can expect more express storefronts and possibly more closures as Covid numbers rise.
A few weeks ago I needed a charger – as I do about once a year – and saw that the Apple store in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood was open. It was one of Apple’s first retail outposts; Steve Jobs himself appeared at the store launch. But this time, security was even tighter than it was when Jobs showed some of us around. A security guard pointed a heat gun at my head, verified my appointment was valid, and sent me inside, where I was matched with a specialist. Through our masks, we chatted. She invited me to play with the new iPhones on the table; not wearing gloves, I hesitated. The $ 80 Macbook Air charger has arrived and the specialist has closed the sale.