Tomorrow morning at 10.00, Apple will open its largest store, located at the rather regal address of No 1 Piazza, in London’s Covent Garden. The store is Apple’s 300th and the city’s second. The first London Apple Store, in Regent Street, opened in 2004 and has been Apple’s biggest retail success to date.
It’s been a big summer for Apple. It launched the iPad and the iPhone 4 (both to mostly favourable reviews – although some people suffered from reception issues with their phones) and for the past couple of months, the company’s market capitalisation has averaged at $229.8bn (€174.4bn). That’s $14bn more than Microsoft. And the Covent Garden store is the third global flagship launched by the California-based giant this summer and, it hopes, its best yet.
“Every time we update a product, we try to make it significantly better than the ones that proceeded it,” says Apple’s senior VP of retail Ron Johnson. “We do the same with our retail.”
In June, the brand opened a store opposite the Opera House in Paris. In July, it opened up its Shanghai flagship: a glass cylindrical tower located directly – some might say arrogantly – next to the city’s Oriental Pearl Tower landmark. Like setting up shop next to the Eiffel Tower, it’s a brave move for a US technology brand that only moved in to retail a decade ago with a store that sold just four products.
“We think that’s a pretty great spot. We like to put our stores where people love to go,” says Johnson. “The biggest surprise to me as a retailer is that our significant stores [flagships] are our best stores. It turns out they’re our highest profit and highest traffic stores as well,” he adds.
The Covent Garden store is set over three floors in an immaculately renovated late 19th-century building. The Apple team has again worked with firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson on the sympathetic and clean architectural job, albeit layering the slightly dated combination of exposed brick and glass on too thick.
Unlike the open-planned Regents Street and Fifth Avenue stores, Covent Garden is divided up, more warren-like. Besides each product line having its own zone, the store has areas dedicated to Apple “Personal Trainers”, to its trademark Genius Bar, and a room devoted to helping small businesses.
On the third floor is a closed-off “Briefing Room” where small start-ups can go to hear how Apple can help their business and, as Apple probably hopes, walk out having ordered an office-full of kit. There is also the “Start Up” room, where shoppers can take their purchases and have them set up on the spot – so you can walk out chatting on your iPhone or dolphin-flapping your hands over an iPad screen. There are 300 smiley members of staff – for a modern hi-tech firm it does old-fashioned service well.
As one of the world’s largest corporations, Apple has – on the whole – managed to maintain its position as a next-door-neighbour brand. Despite questions raised about staff conditions at its Chinese plants, it’s mostly a likeable brand. And the shops allow Apple fans access to the brand in a way other tech companies cannot compete with.
“Apple is very welcoming to its customers, and customers respond by visiting their stores much more than they would, and they get a reasonable conversion rate,” says Verdict Research analyst Neil Saunders. “The service is so good and it’s tied in with a much longer-term vision as to how to build market share for Apple in the future.”