Steve Jobs' lasting legacy for retail

Oct. 5, 2011

Reflecting on his life and Apple's humble beginnings while delivering a commencement address in front of Stanford University 2005 graduates, Steve Jobs commented, "You can't connect the dots looking forward...[but]...Believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path and that will make all the difference."

Steve believed in a future he envisioned for others (not selfishly for himself) and worked tirelessly toward it. His own steadfast focus on realizing that vision energized tens of thousands of people, transforming work into passion for many.

As Steve Jobs passes from living legend to historical figure, he will be remembered as a successful businessman for co-founding Apple, NeXT and Pixar. Oh, and for rekindling Apple at its lowest point, then leading it to unprecedented success. As more time passes, he will be seen as an inventor next to Bell, Ford and Edison. Eventually, in my opinion, he will be most remembered as a connector of people and as a transformer of industries (tech, entertainment, communications and retail). His ideas introduced new ways of interacting with each other that now work anywhere on the planet.

Jobs' vision and Apple's execution have had a transformative effect on the retail industry, both in-store and online, in an industry the company entered fewer than 10 years ago.

When Apple introduced The Apple Store, pundits predicted the demise of the effort and even the company. Now, 300+ locations and more than a dozen countries later, this consumer experience company boasts the highest sales volume of any retailer, approaching $6,000/SF or €420/m2.

The success of the Apple Store venture proves Steve's management philosophy that all the details are important, even if they are not under direct control. Apple's ability to successfully coordinate products, people, technology and services through purposeful and singular experience design is unprecedented—and worth emulating.

I believe success is largely rooted in Steve's design philosophy. His vision was a blend of business and the arts. By emphasizing emotion and aesthetics, Jobs placed value on customers' enjoyment of using Apple's products and services. He made sure the engineers, designers and sales associates in the stores did too. He wanted, I believe, a good experience designed into every product, every place, and into everyone.

One of his values was simplicity evidenced by his continued focus on making design lines cleaner, weights lighter, instruction manuals shorter, products more capable and easier at the same time, and by holding price points on products through their maturation. Steve made retail easier for customers as part of his grand design. His examples are an unexpected gift to our industry.

Apple never retailed Apple products, they Apple-ized retail.

Jobs' appreciation for the arts and Apple's design-based way of thinking helped us all see how a better experience creates a better bottom line. For example:

  • Better experience: By giving customers the opportunity to schedule shopping, repair, Genius Bar, or training times, Apple's customers get the uninterrupted time and attention they crave. Better bottom-line: Apple can accurately predict staffing needs so the company spends less on labor per sales dollar generated.
  • Better experience: By using roving (handheld) registers, customers waste less time in lines, don't have to fumble with receipts, and get to deal with one t-shirted Apple rep from start to finish. Better bottom-line: Apple increases its capacity in number of shoppers/hour and sales/hour while getting to know its customers and their needs better.
  • Better experience: By placing electronic catalogs with a 'help me' button next to every product in the store customers are able to know more, learn more, and become better shoppers and users. Better bottom-line: Apple can direct knowledgeable resources to the customer when and where they need it.
  • Better experience: By giving customers free services (storage, email, syncing, remote phone/tablet erasing, learning and support) customers became more confident and used their products even more. Better bottom-line: Apple's super users are less expensive to support and double as brand ambassadors.

These are just some of the patterns Jobs' thinking gave to retail. He knew, intuitively, that design gives everyone more of what they want.

In Steve's honor, consider, as retailers, what you can do for your customers. Think about how you can push the boundaries of what's possible—even when they are not in your domain. And remember, as Steve often said in his speeches, that [paraphrase] making more great products isn't as important as making more great experiences.

Steve Jobs has stopped living but his impact on retail will live on.

Author Mike Wittenstein is retail experience designer at Storyminers. Photo of Jobs at Stanford in 2005 by Keng Susumpow.

Topics: Customer Experience

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