Apple’s retail stores are among the most profitable in the world, and their success is largely due to the former head of Apple retail, Ron Johnson. Steve Jobs hired Johnson a decade ago to help get the company’s retail division off the ground, and Johnson turned Apple retail into a wildly successful division before leaving to become CEO of JC Penny last year.
Many have heard stories of Johnson and his responsibility in creating the Apple Stores we know and love today. There was, however, another person at Apple who made a profound impact in the early days of the Apple Store.
Mickey Drexler was called the “King of Retail” for his role in turning Gap into a household name during the late 90s. If there was ever a ‘Steve Jobs of retail’, it was Drexler. He made the Gap retail experience a completely in-house affair, and he controlled his company’s distribution from the top down, much like Apple. The open, minimalistic, spacious, airy feel of the Gap stores were a huge inspiration for the first Apple Store. In his official biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson says, “He [Drexler] was one of the few people in the world who were as successful and savvy as Jobs on matters of design, image, and consumer yearnings.”
Jobs liked Drexler’s work so much that he brought him on as an Apple board member while he was the CEO of Gap. He later became the CEO of J. Crew and still serves on Apple’s board to this day. He remains closely involved with Apple’s plans, as he recently said in an interview that Steve Jobs wanted to make an iCar and that Apple is planning to make a push for the living room.
Anyway, back to retail:
“I left the department store business because I couldn’t stand not controlling my own product, from how it’s manufactured to how its sold,” Drexler said. “Steve is just that way, which is why I think he recruited me.”
While Ron Johnson and Steve Jobs were largely responsible for the look and feel of the Apple Store originally, Drexler also played a huge role. He suggested that Apple do a complete prototype of a store before breaking ground in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. His argument was that Johnson and Jobs needed to physically see and experience the store before pulling the trigger. According to Walter Isaacson’s biography:
Drexler gave Jobs a piece of advice: Secretly build a prototype of the store near the Apple campus, furnish it completely, and then hang out there until you feel comfortable with it. So Johnson and Jobs rented a vacant warehouse in Cupertino. Every Tuesday for six months, they convened an all-morning brainstorming session there, refining their retailing philosophy as they walked the space. It was the store equivalent of Ive’s design studio, a haven where Jobs, with his visual approach, could come up with innovations by touching and seeing the options as they evolved. “I loved to wander over there on my own, just checking it out,” Jobs recalled.
Apple takes this same approach with future product prototypes. The company is known to create several variations of, say, a new iPhone or iPad many months before release. That way the decision makers at Apple can see what works and what doesn’t by actually using and testing the devices. A prototype version of the original iPhone had a physical keyboard, and Apple is likely testing the rumored iPad mini. Product prototyping is Apple’s secret sauce, and it works.