Apple's town squares are a 'branding fantasy'

The plaza at the back of the new Apple store in San Francisco, which is open 24/7 and has free wi-fi.

The plaza at the back of the new Apple store in San Francisco, which is open 24/7 and has free wi-fi.

Goodbye, Apple store. From now on, the company says, its stores are "town squares".

Moments before unveiling the iPhone X, Apple executives introduced its new concept: Company stores that would double as public spaces, complete with outdoor plazas, indoor forums and designated boardrooms for local entrepreneurs.

"We think of Apple retail [stores] as Apple's largest products," Angela Ahrendts, head of Apple's retail operations, said at an event unveiling the company's newest technology. "It's funny, we actually don't call them stores anymore. We call them town squares because they're gathering places where everyone is welcome."

The idea, she said, was to create outdoor plazas where people could "relax, meet up with friends, or just listen to a local artist on the weekends."

Inside the store, employees would teach children and adults how to code, take better photos, make movies and develop apps. And the company would rebrand its customer service areas as "genius groves", complete with trees and other plants.

Shops and town squares have long existed alongside each other - consider the agoras of ancient Greece - but retail and architecture experts said they were unsure that Apple could successfully turn a retail store into a truly public space.

"It's branding fantasy - they could've called them Magic Kingdoms, but that name was already taken," said Gideon Fink Shapiro, an architecture historian and researcher of public spaces.

"The Apple store is a beautiful, well designed space, but a public space on 'Planet Apple' is not the same thing as a real public space."

Angela Ahrendts: "We think of Apple retail [stores] as Apple's largest products."
HENRY COOKE/FAIRFAX NZ

Angela Ahrendts: "We think of Apple retail [stores] as Apple's largest products."

"But then again," he added, "maybe Apple is onto something in the sense that there aren't enough appealing, vibrant public spaces in our cities."

The move by Apple is part of a larger trend within retail to make physical locations less about merchandise and more about experiences as more people shop online.

Nordstrom this week announced that its newest store in Los Angeles would not sell any clothing, shoes or accessories, but would rather create a gathering ground for customers to receive services from stylists, tailors and manicurists. Other companies have taken similar moves in recent months. 

"Fifteen years ago, you'd use advertising to build brand awareness," said Judge Graham, chief marketing officer of Ansira, a marketing firm based in Dallas. "That's not enough anymore. Now brands are having to literally invite people in. The way you create a cult-like following for your brand is by having groups of people who want to hang out in your stores with other folks who also love the brand."

The company has long offered free wifi, which has helped attract customers who may need to check their emails or log in for work. And, Graham said, adding more seats could potentially expand Apple's ability to attract a range of people into its stores.

"I can absolutely see people saying, 'Let's meet at the Apple Town Square to work on this presentation,'" he said.

But some said they were skeptical that adding tables, plants and a boardroom could transform a store into a regular community gathering place.

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"Let's be honest: I'm pretty sure the vast majority of people at an Apple store are there for tech support," said Sucharita Mulpuru, a retail analyst.

"Apple has a lot of potential with classes and workshops, but the idea that people want to hang out in a store? It seems like they'd have to add food or beverage and lots of seating to make that happen."

Although, she added, Apple stores seem to have become a hang-out for at least one demographic: Men and children who would rather tinker with the store's gadgets than go shopping with the rest of their families.

Even if Apple is successful in attracting loyal regulars to its plazas, Shapiro says creating a public space is more complicated than that.

"When you go into a lively and vibrant public space, it's an interesting place because often times, you're surprised by the things people are doing: Walking, talking, kissing, arguing, protesting, making art," he said.

"The town square, let's face it, is a messy place - and Apple just isn't messy."

 - The Washington Post

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