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The Apple Watch did not change the Apple Store like we thought it would

People try on the Apple Watch at an event at an Apple store in New York. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)
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It was just over a year ago that the Apple Watch was slated to be unveiled, and the Internet rumor and analysis machine was running in overdrive: Wall Street-types weighed in on whether the new gadget could propel the world’s most valuable company to greater revenue and an even higher stock price. Tech geeks were chattering about the nitty-gritty of its features, and culture mavens debated whether it would become a game changer like the iPod or iPhone before it.

And in the retail world, the major question was this: Would the arrival of a product that was not just a gadget, but also a luxury fashion item, push Apple to shake up its successful store format?

The root of the speculation, or at least, the primary fuel for it, was a single paragraph in a New Yorker profile of Apple’s design chief, Jonathan Ive. In that story it was reported that Ive and Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of retail, were working on a redesign of Apple stores, perhaps to make the setting more conducive to selling a luxury timepiece. The story noted that Ive had “overheard someone saying, ‘I’m not going to buy a watch if I can’t stand on carpet.’ ”

And so analysts — and reporters, including this one — began wondering: Would certain sections of the store be carpeted? Would they be outfitted with full-length mirrors so people could see how the watch fit into their overall look? Would there be showcase lighting, like at an upscale jeweler?

If you’ve set foot in an Apple store lately, you know the answer to all of these questions: No.

Apple did end up adding a backroom VIP area to at least one store in New York where customers could try on the Edition, the luxe version of the watch that has a five-figure price tag.

But the Apple Store, by and large, still has the same vibe and aesthetic that it did in the pre-Watch era. Sure, some newer stores have fresh features, such as one in Brussels that is outfitted with live trees. An Apple representative has said that a forthcoming store in Memphis is to be a “next-generation” Apple store, with new design elements such as a large TV screen that can display a changing array of products or artwork. But even with those kinds of potential changes, the Apple Store continues to be defined by a spare, contemporary look and feel — and the changes that have been implemented or are on the way don’t exactly seem linked to the unique needs of selling the watch.

Apple has long made more money per square foot than any other retailer at the mall, and by quite a wide margin. Steven Kirn, executive director of the University of Florida’s retail education and research center, said that may ultimately be at the heart of why Apple didn’t try to incorporate any traditional jewelry store merchandising tactics into its outposts.

I’m guessing that they just looked at it and said, ‘Are we really going to put a fixture like you’d find in a Macy’s? Or are we going to stick with what brought us here?’ ” Kirn said. 

Still, some experts say they see some subtle changes in the stores lately. Ken Nisch, chairman of retail strategy and design consultancy JGA, said he detects more of Ive’s design sensibility in the Brussels location. (Ive has long led Apple’s product design, but has only recently added oversight of store design to his work portfolio.)

“The new store is even a closer reflection of the design idiom of Apple, in that it’s sleek, minimal and curated. But it’s also, I think, much warmer and friendlier. It’s less industrial,” Nisch said.

Calling out examples of a friendlier vibe, Nisch points to new touches such as wooden seats for those waiting for their “Genius” appointments and the fact that the Genius Bar counter has been removed altogether.

Less of an altar, and more of a one-on-one approach,” Nisch said. 

Today’s Apple Store is also being shaped by Ahrendts, who reportedly went around to 100 stores, call centers and other facilities to get a sense of what was happening on the front lines of Apple’s retail experience. Rachel Elias Wein, president at retail and real estate consultancy WeinPlus, said she suspects that work by Ahrendts has helped contribute to the more personal customer service she’s noticed at its stores.

“I think that the change in the associates’ interaction with the customer is one of those subtle things that you may not notice when you walk in, but is one of those things that could and should impact sales,” Wein said.

It’s possible, of course, that bigger design changes are still to come. Apple is notoriously secretive about new initiatives. But even if those changes arrive, it seems safe to say that the Apple Watch didn’t catalyze the kind of rethink of the store concept that some observers imagined.