I have many friends who work as employees at Apple Retail. Over the the last few months, I have heard a few begin to comment that they are not deriving as much pleasure from those jobs as they did, say, a couple years ago. Why don't they like their jobs as much? What has changed? The iPhone came out in 2007, and the release was likely a hellish experience for Specialists at the store, but even though Apple has learned to handle the product release throngs with aplomb, their employees are feeling more frustrated at work then ever. Often they cite being treated poorly by those they are trying to help, and face an increasingly ungrateful / misunderstanding customer base.
Earnest Specialists desperately attempt to preempt inevitable user frustrations that arise down the line by teaching their customers about the products in the store. Their serving attitude is frequently met with, "I don't care about that s***, just sell me the f****** thing." (This is a direct line from a customer delivered to a trusted Apple Expert)
Why is this happening? The rise of the iPhone and iPad has led to a ubiquity of Apple products in American households, (the iPad is forecasting between 70% and 80% of the tablet market, depending who you read) appealing to a much broader variety of users than the loyalists for whom Apple initially made product. Short answer: Apple is no longer catering just to fanboys.
This isn't new. This isn't news. It's just bigger than we (or Apple) thought. The beginning of the non-fan-clashing-with-Apple-culture-phenomenon occurred when Apple Retail opened its bulletproof glass doors for the first time on May 19th, 2001 in Tyson's Corner, Virginia and Glendale, California: two very affluent areas with high student populations. According to Wikipedia as of July 2011, Apple had opened 357 stores worldwide, and although most are in urban or suburban centers, ease of access to (and, more importantly, visibility of) the product has moved from techies and the affluently-trendy to the everyman.
While Apple Retail as an entity exposed Apple and its culture to the public eye, the exponential demand for their products has driven even more traffic to store who aren't techies or design geeks.
Now, you're probably thinking "What about the iPod? That dominated its market way before the iPhone!" When the iPod came out everyone already knew what an MP3 player was. The iPhone is a much more complex device than the iPod, and requires much more support. Also, the phone relies on mobile networks, necessitating cooperation and a whole new level of customer interaction and tech support the iPod just never dealt with.
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Apple Retail is still pushing the boundaries of the retail experience. They now station iPads at near every product display, calling them "smart signs," enabling the customer to view details about the product, as well as put their name in line to be helped if need be.
Any available employee will get a push notification to their iPod Touch (now standard issue for those on the floor) with the location of the customer in need. The customer will then receive a notification on the iPad that a certain Specialist is on their way, with the photo of that Specialist right there so the customer can look out for them!
How cool is that?
However, sometimes these advancements in the retail experience can frustrate those accustomed to big box stores. For instance, that digital queue generated by the smart signs is frustrating to those users who are unaware of it. To counteract this, Apple Retail has begun testing a "floater" role at select tester locations. He or she babysits the queue and the front of the store, making sure customers who ask for help or appear lost are added to it.
My Expert friend says "Our customer base is getting less and less tech savvy."
For clarity's sake, I must add that the Apple geek is not getting less tech savvy, in fact, just the opposite, but the average customer's tech IQ is decreasing by virtue of sheer un-teched volume.
"The kind of person it takes to walk up to the iPad, see the specialist button, hit it, and know they will get assistance is maybe one in fifty customers."
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"So," you're probably thinking, "what you're saying is that the great unwashed aren't as kind as Apple geeks?"
The short answer is "yes."
The long answer is "no."
Fans of any product / band / company / political party are going to approach interactions with that entity with a positive attitude, making them more receptive to teaching and, therefore, more responsive to the "surprise and delight" mantra to which Apple Retail is dedicated. This also makes them more patient and understanding if something doesn't go according to plan or is unexpected.
A neutral party (or worse yet, a non-fan sent to the store by their kid who has to have this newfangled contraption NOW) will likely approach the interaction like the financial transaction it is: mentally guarded and emotionally distant, and much more difficult to teach. Anything perceived as "wrong" or "different" is instantly negativised in memory.
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I highly doubt a board of directors will look at Apple's current bottom line and think something is wrong, but the fanboys are what helped Apple become great by buying what they sold when nobody else was, and now the Specialists and Experts are being treated quite poorly by the current customer base.
My friends totally need a break because they have lost all patience with their customers. But are the customers really changing that much? I don't think so; there have always been customers like this. Now there are simply more of them.
It will be interesting to see how Apple Retail develops again as the customer base continues to evolve and their products permeate the culture more and more. They have already made huge strides in the way customers think about retail, and nobody doubts them as a leader in the field.
But as far as the emotional state of their employees-on-the-floor, I hope the direction they take sets their Specialists and Experts up for satisfaction, rather than frustration.