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When Apple Computer announced the Apple Store, more than one industry pundit predicted the project’s demise. "Apple is a technology company," they said. "They won’t be successful at retail."

Successfully translating its product design advantage into a retail experience, Apple has out-retailed most retailers boasting world-leading sales figures of approximately $4,000/square foot.

Several months ago, Apple announced a new tablet computer with no wires, keyboard, or mouse. iPad fills a gap between the iPhone and laptop. I knew I wanted one, but wasn’t sure why.

On Saturday morning, 3 April 2010, I woke up (extremely) early to conduct an Experience Expedition. I wanted to see, first-hand, how Apple’s Retail Sales Associates (RSAs) would deliver on a first-of-a-kind new product-with-service experience. Doing something new and correctly in front of customers the first time is the ultimate test for experience-based brands. (It turned out, that Apple sold over 300,000 units in stores that day.)

When I arrived, there were two orderly lines with about 100 people in each. One line labeled "Reservations", started at the front door and headed south. The other, "Purchases", headed north. At first, I thought how long and boring this wait is going to be. "I already know what I want, just let me in," I said to myself. Since this was an Experience Expedition, I kept my attention on what was happening around me, hoping to find opportunities for other retailers.

Two greeters worked at the store’s entrance. Alternately, they introduced themselves to each customer in the lines, asked their name, learned something about their interests, and then escorted them to the store entrance where they introduced them, by name, to ‘their own’ employee. iPad already in hand, their new friend led them into the store for their own experience. Not once did either of the greeters use the word "Next!" to call up the next customer. They approached each customer personably offering a friendly greeting. The handoff was smooth. Expectations were clear. There was zero downtime. This is the science of experience design.

Apple makes a point of not rushing its customers. By extending that in-store philosophy to the lines outside the store, the service delivery experience became visible to everyone. Customers in line could see what to expect when their turn came so they felt more relaxed while waiting. I know I did—and so did the people sharing the line with me. The one-on-one greeting process didn’t shorten customers’ real wait times but it did raise their anticipation for a great experience of their own. Even on this Saturday, one of the busiest days of the year, the store team didn’t cut service corners or steal seconds from their interactions. They delivered on each customer’s expectations—and gave each person plenty of time.

Looking mid-way into the store, I noticed a group of people huddled together. Seeing strangers so close together in stores is uncommon because most people prefer to be surrounded by space not other shoppers. It was quiet. Then, a big cheer erupted through the glass front doors, which made everyone in line turn their heads. Customers held their hands up with their new iPads in boxes, bags, and sometimes already out of their cases with the screens lit up.

The people in line smiled in response. They knew their time was coming. Our anticipation grew.

As the same customers exited the store, they were met with more cheers, applause, camera flashes and big smiles from the greeters. Their faces flushed and, with their new iPads dangling in shopping bags strung from their arms, they came face-to-face with the anxiously waiting crowd. Many just smiled. Some shot both arms up in the air in a winning gesture. One bowed to the crowd. It was more like a movie premiere than a new product introduction.

Dozens of people were already on site for three hours before the doors opened at 9:00, so you can imagine the thirst and hunger. The unexpected delight continued as I noticed an Apple employee appear out of nowhere. He was pushing a cart up and down the line offering free coffee and pastries for the soon-to-be customers. Someone from the sales team obviously took a moment to stand in their customers’ shoes and anticipate their needs. This employee was responsible for a really strong connection with customers on a personal level that day. It was the art side of experience design. Doing something for your fellow human beings that’s appropriate but not expected is one of the best ways to show that your brand cares.

The people in line were hungry for more than food. From time-to-time two Apple employees emerged through the front doors, went to the middle of the line, and then held out iPads for customers to get their own hands-on experience. A few minutes and dozens of questions later, the iPad and employee moved down the line, giving everyone a peek at what’s to come once they get inside. The ‘peek’ helped waiting customers feel more comfortable, more connected, and gave them plenty to focus on.

Great experiences come from people who sweat the details. Providing customers with something to do, think about, and anticipate makes the wait feel shorter. Walt Disney was one of the first business leaders to manage the waiting experience. Whether it was the 10km drive into the Magic Kingdom showing water towers with mouse ears or bushes shaped like cartoon characters or the air conditioned and themed indoor waiting line at The Haunted Mansion, Disney knew to start the experience at the end of the line.

Intuitively, we already understand the art and science of waiting. It’s a design point every retailer can amplify. From my observations, Apple fully understands that experience design begins at the end of the line, not inside the store. Like Disney, they know how to make waiting fun, informative, and entertaining. A great wait can transform an intended purchase from a product into an object of desire.

While Apple’s example of a new product introduction has shown us a great deal about crafting waiting experiences that don’t seem so long, their greatest contribution to retailing may be their product. The iPad, a portable, wireless, tablet computer, gives retailers the opportunity to strengthen their relationships with customers, present information from multiple product brands intelligently, quickly, and with less training, bring exciting information to the point of sale, and let real selling happen outside the four walls of the store. Think of the iPad as a portable POS and digital sign. I’d love to hear how you’re thinking about using this new technology. Drop me a line at mike@mikewittenstein.com.

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Latest posts by Mike Wittenstein
Mike Wittenstein
Mike Wittenstein, founder of Storyminers, is a practicing customer experience consultant and speaker with over two decades of experience. His work has taken him to more than 25 countries and he has helped over 400 companies with his expertise in using customer experience design as a strategy for increasing sales and profit.
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