SOFTWALL-ING THE WORLD OF APPLE

On 20th October Apple unveiled the 1st Apple Town Square in Chicago. It comes 16 years after the 1st Apple Store was unveiled in Glendale California, in 2001.

This post discusses the significance of ideas that are being put forth by Apple while presenting to the world it’s new vision of, not just Apple retail, but the arguably traditional retail model itself.


Apple Town Square as an architectural design statement from the brand:

With the Chicago store, Apple has pushed it’s retail design to a new and spectacularly distinct phase. It feels like a befitting architectural expression of Apple’s clean, minimalist philosophy.



IMAGE SOURCE: https://media.nbcchicago.com


A worldview that has changed the conversation around consumer technology from being a predominantly left-brained one till 3 decades ago to one that saw new connections between creativity and functionality.

Every aspect of this new retail space seems to comes from a unifying core, demanding a conversation that is as much philosophical as material.


Expanding the frame of Apple Store:

Right from the beginning, Apple Stores have stood out for their clarity of intent – to make interaction with Apple products as seamless and devoid of barriers as possible. Town Squares take that understanding to a new level.

The wood tables, on which Apple products warmly welcome human interaction, remain at the core of this new space, what changes is the frame. The Town Square takes a really wide-angle perspective on this table - this point of engagement, zooming out to an extent that one begins to see the life around the Apple device fall in order with the same sense of proportions and beauty. Inviting the viewer to become a voyeur to this world. A living room, a board room designed with the same sense of unique aesthetics. as an Apple device is.



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Lighting in Apple Stores has been anything but spotlight-esque. A uniform ambient lighting which presents technology as within the continuous fabric of material world – never fetishizing it. Town Square takes this continuity to even include the ‘outside’ within it's wide frame. Allowing the natural light to wash in. Seems symbolic of the seamlessness of the inside:outside when it comes to personal tech.


The invisible walls of Town Square:

A wafer thin carbon fiber roof seemingly floats over the Town Square. It stands over walls that have been ‘de-materialized to pure-glass’. As Stefan Behling, Head of Studio, Foster & Partners puts it ‘the glass is not there for it’s own sake, it is meant to create a non-existent envelope’

‘Apple world’ almost comes across as an augmented reality in an otherwise regular public space. These glass walls can be seen as symbolic of the many divisions that are getting de-materialized by technology today:

  • Inside-outside
  • Public-private
  • Technology-lifestyle

And the Town Square is a nod to this new reality.



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Softwalling Apple retail:

There is another important division that these walls blur, that between commercial and creative. With Town Square, Apple takes a bold step towards softwalling traditional retail. By allowing people to look into the world of Apple without any brickwalls (akin to paywalls in the virtual world). Apple acknowledges the need for allowing people to walk-in, interact and engage with their products. It pushes commerce back (or down in this case) and allows the creative community to engage in an immersive and seamless manner.

Duolingo’s Gina Gotthilf speaks of how Softwalling (allowing users to immerse in full stack features of the app and pushing the payment to a later stage) has significantly boosted their growth. Apple has been doing the same for years, and now with Town Square it takes Softwalling to a whole new level.



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Apple shows us the future of retail:

This vision comes from the top retailer based on sales per-square-foot. Apple did $5546 in sales per square foot according to CoStar report. So we better sit up and listen.

With over 3 decades of having built a community of Apple users, the brand is truly in a unique position to reinvent traditional retail. The brand understands that it doesn’t ‘need’ to focus on closing a sale. It needs to take the conversation beyond convincing people about features, price, updates in a manner most of the product companies do – in an inward looking way. The consumer is not there to listen about you, they’ve already read through reviews, seen the unboxing on youtube and discussed with their peers. They could have purchased the product online. Why should they walk in to a store?



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They are here to engage, to get inspired by others in their imagined communities. And Apple understands this all too well. They are re-inventing the dynamics of human interactions that physical retail has to offer.

Apple’s retail chief Angela Ahrendts believes she is ‘building a lifelong loyal relationship, where you trust us, trust what we are teaching you, trust what we are offering to you for purchase because we are not ‘selling’ you. It is no different from fashion, where you go back to someone who has taken good care of you, who you trust to make you a better version of yourself’. It is not just because Angela comes from Burberry that she draws a parallel between Apple and fashion. The concept of ‘Apple lifestyle’ has been long sown into the brands self-image by the original retail head Ron Johnson.


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Town Squares: pushing the retail identity of Apple


One could be forgiven to quip at this point, with ‘you can’t manage what you cant measure’. But as Angela lists out the key metrics of success for Apple Town Squares in an interview with CNBC we can be sure they have thought this through - “besides the usual measures of revenue, we will have our eyes on how many people came in? how long did they stay? whether they attended the Today@Apple session? I’d love to be able to say ‘did you learn something, were you inspired, did we enrich your life, did you connect with other people in the community?... And we are measuring those with the help of a firm and we will get very cultural measures for this’.


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It is not just the location, scale and architecture that makes Apple audaciously call their stores ‘Town Square’, it is the very culture that makes this shift in identity a legitimate one.



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