Wave goodbye to the last of Apple’s mini-stores

By

The typical design for an Apple Mini-Store. Wave goodbye! Photo: Apple
The typical design for an Apple Mini-Store. Wave goodbye! Photo: Apple

While many of us will be celebrating Valentine’s Day this Saturday, for Apple it represents the end of an era.

At 10pm today, Apple will close its existing Oakridge retail store in San Jose, California — with a new, larger one set to open Saturday morning at 10am. In the process, Apple will have marked the end of its mini-store experiment, with the Oakridge venue being the last of its kind.

First launched in 2004, Apple’s mini-stores were an effort to quickly roll out new Apple Stores to keep up with demand at a time when the company was unable to find enough of the larger sites it was looking for. Nine mini-stores were opened in all — ranging in size from 2,000-square-feet down to a tiny 500-square foot.

Apple's Oakridge Mini-Store was just wide enough to fit a Honda Civic. Photo: ifoAppleStore
Apple’s Oakridge Mini-Store was just wide enough to fit a Honda Civic. Photo: ifoAppleStore

“By 2004, Apple’s retail stores had expanded to the point where it could no longer find 3,000-square foot stores in the kinds of places they were trying to establish them,” says Gary Allen, Apple Store enthusiast and founder of ifoAppleStore. “So instead of going bigger, [Apple] decided to focus on mini-stores — helped by the realisation that, even with less space, they could sell close to the same amount of merchandise.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of the mini-stores was their design — managing to be compact, but without losing what it was that made the larger stores so characterful.

“Our mini store is a big experience that fits in a small space,” said Ron Johnson, Apple’s then-senior VP of Retail, at the time. “The mini store’s small size will allow us to place stores in a variety of interesting new locations, while retaining innovations like the Genius Bar that have made Apple’s retail stores such a hit.”

Before being installed, the mini-stores were prototyped in a top-secret warehouse in Cupertino.

Steve Jobs based the concept of the mini-stores on a Mini Cooper car: smaller, but still luxurious. For many companies, tiny kiosk stores that were never intended to be flagships would have been an excuse to slack off. Instead, under the exacting guidance of Jobs, Apple’s Mini-Stores represent a perfect time capsule of the company’s approach to industrial design, circa 2004.

The walls were formed from milled, bead-blasted stainless steel panels shipped from Japan, alongside wooden benches and tabletops. Originally the plan was to have carpet on the floors, but Jobs didn’t like the color that was picked out for one early outlet, and had it torn up at great expense and replaced with a shiny epoxy-finish. Before being installed, the mini-stores were prototyped in a top-secret warehouse in Cupertino.

The mini-stores were a great success, and Apple briefly considered trying to make them a fixture at airports. However, they quickly became unwieldy as Apple transitioned into the giant that it is today — resulting in too many customers for the diminutive size of each venue.

What a difference a decade makes. This photo shows the Oakridge Mini-Store just before it opened. Photo: ifoAppleStore
What a difference a decade makes. This photo shows the Oakridge Mini-Store just before it opened. Photo: ifoAppleStore

“It was a great idea for its time, but it didn’t take too long before the mini-stores just became impractical,” says Allen. “As Apple became more and more popular, you literally had people queuing out of the door on a regular shopping day.”

Ultimately, the mini-stores are a great glimpse at an Apple midway between the struggling company that haemorrhaged $740 million in a single quarter in 1996, and the giant with a bigger market cap than Intel and Microsoft combined in 2011. We may no longer have Apple mini-stores here in 2015, but they’re stores we can look back on very fondly.

And who knows? With Apple demand growing exponentially in markets like China and India, they may not be gone forever.