What does Apple get by trademarking its store design?

Feb. 25, 2013

The following is an excerpt from a recent conversation on RetailWire, reproduced here with kind permission.

Apple's retail store design — including details of the storefront, the shelves, the arrangement of the tables and the position of the products — was recently granted a trademark from the U.S Patent and Trademark Office.

The trademark covers Apple's "clear glass storefront" design, including their "large, rectangular horizontal panels over the top of the glass front." It also covers the store's interior furniture and fixtures including — specifically, "rectangular tables arranged in a line" as well as the floors, lighting and shelves. The store's "Genius Bar" was also included.

"There is multi-tiered shelving along the side walls, and a[n] oblong table with stools located at the back of the store, set below video screens flush mounted on the back wall," the trademark description reads.

Apple originally applied for the trademark in 2010 but was rejected twice before finally being approved, according to ifoAppleStore.com.

The patents provide some protection from copycat retailers. Several reports assumed the motivation was driven by numerous fake Apple stores surfacing in China in recent years. Trademark rights do not extend outside the U.S., but companies that file for domestic protection often seek similar protection elsewhere. The U.S. trademark indicated Apple was seeking similar trademark protection in 19 other countries, including China, Russia, Turkey and several Euro countries.

Some reports also noted that while the first Apple store opened in 2001, only in recent years have rivals Microsoft and Sony begun opening similar stores of their own. In any challenge, Apple would have to prove that consumers are confusing the alleged copycat stores for theirs.

"The million dollar question in this instance, as in pretty much all trade dress cases, is just how close a competitor can come to the design without infringing," Christopher Sprigman, a University of Virginia law professor and the co-author of the book, The Knockoff Economy, told Reuters.

Apple has not responded to questions surrounding the trademark.

RetailWire BrainTrust comments:

It's hard to know whether Apple was motivated (as the article suggests) by extension of trademark rights to other countries, or to prevent "copycat" merchandising here in the U.S. However, there's some overreach involved in extending the patent to the linear arrangement of tables and the configuration of the shelves. Does Apple really intend to sue a customer like Best Buy (who has a lot to learn from Apple), or is this targeted more directly at competitors like Microsoft with "me-too" retail store designs? - Dick Seesel, Principal, Retailing In Focus LLC.

Perhaps on the surface many will poke fun at patenting a store design. However, when you not only have an environment that so closely matches the design and functionality of a product/service, but also have copycats emerging that dilute the legitimacy of your brand, I say "always use protection." A brand is a delicate and fragile property that can—and should—extend far beyond its features and benefits. If other retailers have created something truly distinctive in its physical storefront, I expect we'll see similar patents emerging. - Dave Wendland, Vice President, Hamacher Resource Group

Differentiation at retail is extremely important to retailers and impacts their customers as well. Anyone who shops in a Wegmans or a Publix store can see and feel the store in a way that their competitors do not offer. Apple is protecting their brand in the USA before anyone can copy it—they have learned from their international experience. The fact that their stores now will be different will only enhance their brand. - J. Peter Deeb, Managing Partner, Deeb MacDonald & Associates LLC.

(Photo by Ping Ping.)

Topics: Customer Experience , Point-of-Purchase / POP , Specialty Stores , Store Design & Layout

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