Apple Store creator tells how disagreeing with Steve Jobs perfected retail

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Ron Johnson and Steve Jobs at the grand opening of Apple's 5th Ave. store in New York City.
Ron Johnson and Steve Jobs at the grand opening of Apple's 5th Ave. store in New York City.
Photo: Richard Agullar

Steve Jobs’ hands-on approach to just about every project at Apple is part of his legend.

Ron Johnson, Apple’s first head of retail, offers fascinating detail about Jobs and the work leading up to the first Apple Store during a recent episode of the Gimlet podcast Without Fail hosted by Andy Blumberg.

Jobs was demanding and described by many as often difficult to work with. But Johnson says working with Jobs was a “gift.”

“His ability to incisively critique a creative endeavor was second to none,” Johnson tells podcast listeners. “And his intuition, his understanding of what customers would respond to was unparalleled. It was a gift for me to work with him because you’re always in business when you’re inventing things you’ve got to balance the dream with the data. Most people the data overtakes the decision making and then you don’t have a dream.

“Steve always stayed focused on the prize. You know he could articulate it so clearly like he used to love to do things in three or four words.”

The first Apple Store and ‘courage to start over’

The first two Apple Stores officially opened in Tysons, Virginia and Glendale, Calif. on May 15, 2001. Many business leaders predicted the stores would flop. Apple has since opened 506 stores in 25 counties and the retail strategy is now hailed as one of the tech company’s greatest innovations.

The Apple Store was born out of several prototypes in a rented warehouse in Cupertino. Jobs visited the warehouse each Tuesday, often taking in the scene with “his hand on his chin.” Jobs gave Johnson and his team feedback of likes and dislikes and Jobs would arrive the following week to a “radically” changed-up retail scenario.

Jobs was observant of even the smallest changes from week to week. When the height of a table dropped from 36 to 34 inches, he noticed without prompting.

Jobs called him every night for the first year. Johnson shared a heated moment between him and Jobs after Johnson expressed a desire to redesign the prototype. It was in January, less than five months from a soft opening in Virginia.

Jobs was satisfied with the most recent prototype. “We finally have something I want to build and you want to tear it up.”

That same day, Johnson was surprised when Jobs told the store team he agreed with Johnson’s wish to change concepts yet again.

“He called me that night and he said ‘Ron,’ he goes, ‘you reminded me of a really important lesson,’” said Johnson, now the CEO of the online tech store, Enjoy. “‘Everything great I’ve done I’ve had to have the courage at some point in the process to start over and rethink it. ‘I’m really proud of you for challenging the design of the store.’”