Spare a patronising thought for the Genius Bar gang and the plight of Apple’s high-street shops

The company are gearing up for a complete overhaul of their physical shopping experience

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The Independent Online

Here are two words that, on their own, mean only good things but soldered together are guaranteed to deflate even the cheeriest soul: Genius Bar. This is the quirky name that Apple, innovators par excellence, came up with for its customer services desk.

I’ve often thought it should be known as the Idiot Counter as every one of my visits has ended with me being made to feel stupid beyond belief, eyes prickling with bemusement as a chill dude in a blue T-shirt and geek specs, called Timo or Dog or Sherlock, explains to me that all is lost; my model is “technically antique” (this happened); I need to upgrade and, by the way, no one but no one uses the white headphones that come free with the product; have I thought about these £50 ones and here’s a must-have neoprene sleeve while I’m at it?

It is not the poor geniuses’ fault. They are just doing their job, most of them in a really nice, cheerful way which makes you wonder if Apple is spiking the staff tea urn. Still, the customers paying hundreds of pounds for gadgets they never knew they needed want more. Long waits at the Genius Bar and overcrowding on the floor have led to the once-lauded shops falling from favour. In the last high-street survey carried out by Which?, Apple didn’t even make it into the top 10. It’s Apple’s fault. It has made everything – from finding a date to ordering a cab – so finger-swipingly easy, no one has the patience any longer for hard things like queuing or paying or talking to people.

Now a redesign is on the cards. In an interview with The New Yorker, Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice-president of design, hinted at a new, luxury retail experience. As the company prepares to launch its first solid gold, talking smartwatch, it needs shops to match. Ive was inspired, apparently, by overhearing someone say, “I’m not going to buy a watch if I can’t stand on a carpet.” As maxims of indulgent modern life go, it doesn’t really bear scrutiny – like saying, “I’m not going to eat this Heston Blumenthal risotto if I’m not sitting in a hot air balloon” – but I never thought the iPad would take off, so what do I know?

 

The new stores will sell watches, starting at £215 and rising to thousands, in fancy vitrines. There may be carpets. They will probably be less welcoming, the article suggests, to “tourists and truants”. It’s quite the volte-face. The Apple store was seen as revolutionary when it blazed on to the high street a decade ago in a dazzle of white walls, glass and warm welcomes. Where else could you go to try out products, check your emails and charge your phone at the same time? Since then, several brands have followed its lead, launching “concept stores” where you can buy a coffee with your socks or read a book while browsing perfumes.

It’s heartening, if not surprising, that Ive and co. still think shops matter. Again, it’s partly the fault of Apple – and the seamless shopping experience its products provide – that the high street is ailing. An Ofcom report last December found that Britons spent on average £2,000 a year online. In 2014, online sales in the UK reached £44.9bn and are set to top £55bn in 2015.

While the digital experience is developing and moving with the times, the physical shopping experience has stalled and become, for the most part, pretty unpleasant. The airless shopping arcades that seemed so cool in the nineties and set the decline of the town centre in motion are due for a cull.

Elsewhere, the list of high-street horrors is long: shops that cram in too much stock on tangled hangers with impossible-to-find price tags; shops that have no idea what they are any more (Marks & Spencer, W H Smith); shops that are constantly moving things around (Boots); escalators that lead you on a merry dance around the floor (every department store); shops that are too dark; tills that are too busy; shops that have no assistants to assist; changing rooms that are so crowded and overlit they feel like A&E on a Saturday night.

Apple could have the right idea in upscaling its high-street presence. Something has to lure shoppers away from the one-click. Mind you, no one will buy anything if the prices aren’t right. This week, The Sun sent a reporter to stand outside Victoria Beckham’s new concept store in Mayfair – all 4m-wide staircase, walnut benches and iPads instead of tills. Of the 500 people who went through its doors in a four-day period, it was reported, only four came out again having bought something.

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