Always Right

In Search of the Next Genius Bar

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

The first Apple Store, which opened in Tysons Corner, Virginia, in 2001, looked more like a gallery than a shop. Its spare layout recalled the company’s aesthetic, but that was a matter of necessity as much as design. The store couldn’t have been cluttered if it tried: Apple only had four product lines at the time, four types of computers arrayed for sampling on pale hardwood tables. Then there was a big chunk of the store that didn’t appear to sell anything at all, which Ron Johnson, Apple’s senior vice president, who developed the stores, called the Genius Bar.

“That’s so idiotic,” Johnson remembered a skeptical CEO Steve Jobs saying. “They’re all geeks! You can call it the geek bar.” Far from thinking different, Jobs was reiterating an old retail maxim. Repair, defects, problems: These were typically back-of-house, confined to a 1-800 number or folded in at the checkout counter. If it was presumptuous to hang a photo of Albert Einstein above employees fixing computers, it seemed downright silly to put customers troubleshooting your products at the center of sales.

You know how this turned out: The Apple Store became the world’s most lucrative per-square-foot retailer, an agent of downtown revitalization, and an anchor tenant so coveted by struggling malls that it pays just a fraction of its sales receipts in rent compared to neighboring stores. As brick-and-mortar retail is flogged by Amazon’s convenience, low prices, and easy delivery, stores and malls are looking to adopt the holistic, experiential attitude toward retail space that Apple helped pioneer, one that lures customers out of the house with an idea of service that goes far beyond sales. Sephora will put on your makeup. Sur la Table will teach you how to cook. After last week’s TaskRabbit acquisition, it looks like Ikea is about to start assembling your furniture.

Writing for Slate in 2012, Farhad Manjoo isolated this feature in a handful of successful, high-growth retail outfits as a way to “Amazon-proof” your business. “They’re all what retailers call ‘high touch’—they prize rich, personalized customer service … they bank on the fact that there’s a moneyed segment of the population that’s willing to pay for a qualitatively better experience.”

That ethos has slowly found its way into other companies too. “Everybody’s in the service business, they just don’t all know it yet.” says Robert Stephens, the founder of Geek Squad, a company (later purchased by Best Buy) that glamorized computer repair before Apple did. That meant abandoning the commission-based sales model that has long motivated retail employees. Stephens cited Miracle on 34th Street, in which a Macy’s Santa Claus sends a customer to a rival department store to get what she needs. That, he said, was the “atomic birth of the honest service principle.”

This sense—that company employees are trying to help you, not sell you something—is also the ethos at the Genius Bar, whose cultish, proscriptive training manual is legendary for its emphasis on empathy and vibes in the service of sales. When Johnson and I spoke on the phone this week, he imitated the Yogi-like ethic of a modern retail employee: “I’m not here to sell food or sell computers. I’m here to enrich your life.”

It’s enlightened consumer capitalism in a nutshell, and when Johnson left Apple for an ill-fated stint as J.C. Penney CEO in 2011, he took the strategy with him. One of his ideas for the department store chain was establishing a “town square” at every store, where customers could access free services as well as giveaways like hot dogs and ice cream. That didn’t work at J.C. Penney; Johnson now says they tried to change the chain too fast. But if it sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the concept that Apple retail head Angela Ahrendts unveiled at the company’s keynote last month in Cupertino, California. “We actually don’t call them stores anymore,” she said. “We call them town squares.” As a metaphor for the tech industry’s appropriation of the public sphere, it seemed a bit on the nose. But it’s a fitting culmination of Johnson’s initial strategy to cloak the exchange of cash in civitas. (Apple Stores never had cash registers.)

Town square­–style malls have been around for decades, offering consumers a meticulously engineered, corny taste of the Main Streets they vanquished. The Grove in Los Angeles even has a streetcar. But regular malls and stores are now incorporating non-sales functions that expand the vision of “customer service” to include straight-up entertainment. Wegmans has food festivals and live bands in the grocery store. The Arnot Mall in Elmira, New York, turned a vacated AT&T store into a lounge with couches and flat-screen televisions. Retail is on the hunt for anything that separates it from the Internet.

“Amazon is just going to kill crappy retail, mediocre retail,” Stephens, the Geek Squad founder, predicted. The future has room for both digital commerce and brick-and-mortar, Johnson says. “There are times when you want convenience, and that’s what digital commerce is designed for. Amazon delivers convenience. And then there will be times you want more, and that’s when you go to a store.” The stores that find a way to offer something substantive that’s not on the internet are the ones that will survive. You could call it customer service, but at this point, what isn’t?