Rich Zeug hasn’t worked at the Apple Store in more than two years. Yet he still remembers a particularly distressed college student with a liquid-damaged MacBook Pro. The customer’s roommate had spilled beer on the computer.
“You can’t punish him for that,” said Zeug, who ended up giving the student a discount on the repair. He charged him around $300 for what would have been a $1,240 job. Zeug said he wanted to cut the student a break since the accident wasn’t his fault, and he already had to pay a fee to recover his lost data.
“No college kid could afford that,” Zeug said.
It’s interactions like these that have defined the Apple Store since its 2001 inception, a chain where retail staff are trained to put just as much effort into building positive relationships with customers as they do into selling Apple’s products.
But since then, as the iPhone has grown to become an increasingly important part of Apple’s business, Zeug said he saw a change in what the Apple Store started to represent. Around the time he left in 2017, Apple started prioritizing metrics like Apple Pay transactions and the number of AppleCare attachments with sales, Zeug said. “It was less about the customer experience and more about the transaction and the sale.” Apple’s push for quantity has turned a once-rewarding customer service and IT job into something robotic.
He’s not the only Apple Store employee to feel this way. Business Insider spoke to current and former employees who said they noticed a shift in recent years in the spirit of the tech giant’s retail stores. Some said it had become more difficult for retail staff to focus on customers as they felt pressure to boost numbers. Changes to individual store goals and priorities have also made the job feel more transactional and less like they were making personal connections with customers.
Moreover, many of the current or former employees expressed concerns about changes with the Genius Bar, Apple’s in-person technical support. They said that its workers were increasingly encouraged to push upgrades, and that Apple Geniuses, the position once promoted by the company as coveted IT career paths, were no longer receiving technical training that’s as comprehensive as it once was.
The majority of the dozen people who spoke to Business Insider requested to remain anonymous so that they could speak freely about their current or previous employer. They include eight former employees and four current workers from stores in six different states, spanning the South, Midwest, and New England.
They range from having between roughly one and a half years to more than a decade of experience working for Apple Retail. Half of them worked for Apple Stores for longer than five years, and nearly all talked positively about their experiences working for Apple. Their stories provide a glimpse into how the store’s operations and culture have changed as Apple has tackled challenges like slowing iPhone sales, big expansions into new product categories, and corporate leadership changes in recent years.
Apple declined to provide an on-the-record comment for this story.
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There are 270 Apple Stores in the United States and about 70,000 employees working at them. They will undoubtedly play an important role as the company continues its expansion and pushes new services and gadgets, like Apple TV Plus and the Apple Card. After all, they’re not just selling products, they’re building and repairing the public’s relationships to those products.
“Retail is critical, and part of it is that it’s not only a way to sell products, it gives them an avenue to support customers as well,” said Gene Munster, managing partner at the venture capital firm Loup Ventures and a longtime Apple observer. “They’re the ones doing [that] at scale.”
This is not the first time employees have spoken up about how recent changes to the Apple Store have impacted their jobs. Several current and former employees told Bloomberg in May that the store had recently struggled to strike a healthy balance of serving shoppers and making the store a place where customers could learn more about Apple products.
“It’s different,” one former employee told Business Insider, referring to the overall culture at the Apple Store around the time he left compared to when he started. “And they’ll never admit to it being different.”
‘It’s like working at a used car dealership’
About half of the people Business Insider talked to said that they noticed a shift sometime in 2016 or 2017, though one person said it became apparent as far back as 2013. Two other people said a change occurred over the last year.
“Now we’re kind of celebrating more, ‘This person sold this many iPhones yesterday, or this person sold this much Apple Care,'” a former employee said.
That employee and a current staff member at the same store also described a culture that they said had become more competitive, as employees are increasingly evaluated by the number of iPhones they sell or the volume of AppleCare subscriptions they manage to sign consumers up for. That sometimes motivated employees to gravitate toward customers that seemed more likely to purchase an AppleCare subscription rather than helping the next person at the top of the queue, these two people said.
“It’s just really stressful,” a current employee said. “It’s like working at a used car dealership.”
Goal-setting systems can vary by store, but employees mentioned a tool that managers use to track the number of sales each worker makes on high-priority products like iPhones or AppleCare subscriptions. Keeping track of metrics like these isn’t new, but these people said that there has been a much bigger emphasis on such statistics in recent years.
Managers are generally making employees more aware of their numbers, and the statistics gathered from this tool are more frequently brought up in conversations about promotions, a couple of the people said. One person said it was common for managers to approach employees daily about their sales numbers as they work with customers.
“It’s a testament to good or very bad leadership, how that sort of goal-setting shines through,” one current worker said.
Apple is one of the biggest smartphone vendors in the world, but it has been under heightened pressure to boost iPhone sales as revenue from its smartphones — which has traditionally been its most profitable product — has fallen year-over-year in recent quarters. The company has also struggled to maintain its lead in the industry while rivals like Samsung and tech firms from China have grown their share of the market as Apple’s slice has shrunken. Heading into 2020, Wall Street will likely be fixated on how the iPhone performed over the holiday season in its first quarter earnings, especially after sales plummeted by 15% in the first quarter of 2019.
‘It feels like something has been taken from you’
It’s not just the atmosphere of the sales floor that employees said had changed. Several current or former employees familiar with how the Genius Bar operates also said they had noticed a larger push toward selling products, encouraging iPhone upgrades, and serving a higher volume of customers.
The Genius onboarding experience also underwent an upheaval in recent years. Apple stopped sending prospective Geniuses to its headquarters in California for training around 2017.
“The Genius experience was the best thing that I ever did,” said one former employee who attended the training. “It really connected you to the store and to the idea of Apple.”
Now, the training for Geniuses is done virtually in local Apple Stores, and trainees are given fewer opportunities to get their hands on Apple devices during the process, said a couple of the people. Both the quality of the training and morale among Geniuses has taken a hit as a result, according to current and ex-employees. For example, a current employee said that a customer recently brought in an Apple desktop computer that none of the other Geniuses at the store had ever repaired.
“They get the opportunity to be the most senior technician, and they don’t even get to get their hands inside the computer,” one current employee said. “It feels like something has been taken from you.”
Apple also began to phase out its One-to-One individualized service program in 2015 and introduced Today at Apple in 2017, free informational group sessions and workshops offered by the Apple Store.
“It essentially became more about volume than it did about the experience and the journey,” Zeug said.
A former employee who had spent more than a decade at the Apple Store and led One-to-One sessions said that, with these changes, the Apple Store now lacked the individualized attention it used to offer. There’s no place for customers to seek help with specific personal projects — like a slideshow for an upcoming birthday or wedding anniversary, this person said.
Many of these changes happened under the management of Angela Ahrendts, the former Burberry CEO who was tapped to lead Apple Retail in 2014. But Ahrendts left the company earlier this year, and Deirdre O’Brien, a 30-year veteran of Apple who was previously an executive in human resources, now oversees retail in addition to the company’s People team.
Apple has been going through a transformation regardless of Ahrendts’ tenure, as people have been upgrading their smartphones less frequently. As iPhone sales have fallen year-over-year and the industry has grappled with slowing smartphone sales across the board in recent years, Apple has leaned on services like AppleCare, the App Store, and ancillary products like AirPods and the Apple Store to juice its revenue.
The change in leadership could also signal a shift in priorities to building the Apple Store’s business rather than focusing on its image. Ahrendts told Business Insider in 2016 that she wanted to create “incredible places” that simulated town squares. And she left her mark by more closely bridging Apple’s online store with its brick-and-mortar locations and elevating Apple’s branding, Munster, the Apple expert, said. O’Brien will be tasked with boosting sales and engagement at the Apple Store.
O’Brien has her work cut out for her in that regard. Wall Street already has high hopes for next year’s iPhone, which is expected to support 5G connectivity and include a three-dimensional camera system. Analysts are already counting on the company’s 2020 flagship smartphone to drive upgrades and bring Apple’s iPhone revenue back to growth. Apple’s retail stores are sure to play an important role in that effort, as is the staff that drives them.
Although several people who have worked in the Apple Store in recent years have said they noticed a shift that has made the store feel less personal in some ways, the fact that some of them have worked there for more than a decade or close to it is telling. That’s especially significant considering the median amount of time wage and salary workers had been with their current employer as of January 2018 was 4.2 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Despite some of the recent changes some former and current workers have noticed, many of them said the company’s investment in personal growth, excellent benefits, and the feeling that you’re selling more than just a product have made the Apple Store a rewarding place to work. But most important, it’s the people they work with that has kept several employees hooked into the job for years, they’ve said.
Looking forward, some of the people who have worked at the Apple Store in recent years are optimistic about O’Brien taking over, considering she has been at the company for decades and is well-positioned to deeply understand Apple’s culture. It may take some time before we see concrete changes to store policies under O’Brien, however, as one current employee said it took a couple of years for employees to see the results of Ahrendts’ plans for the store.
Still, O’Brien has expertise in working with what may be Apple’s most important advantage: its people.
“You don’t just have one or two people supporting you,” said one former employee. “You have like 20. For Apple, that’s their strength.”
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