Peter Grant makes the following point regarding “Amazon is taking away muh jobs.”

Companies who are currently struggling to attract customers, such as retail stores, often have themselves to blame for their predicament.  They stock limited merchandise, employ the minimum number of store staff (many of whom have no idea what they’re selling or how it works), offer minimal customer service (and that only because they can’t get away with killing it completely), and focus on returns to their shareholders and bloated salaries for their executives, rather than attracting the consumer with his or her dollars.  Funny, stores back in the ’60’s and ’70’s got that right . . . I wonder what changed?

On one hand, I’m fully aware that the workers getting displaced, the store chains closing, don’t have people at the lower levels who can easily transition elsewhere. Even more unfortunate, it’s not entirely their fault. But Peter hits the nail on the head here.

What is one of the most successful, per square foot, in dollar revenue, retail spaces in the world?

The Apple store.

Limited merchandise? Maybe – but thanks to refocusing their product line, everything that apple made was available in every stock option, and even a couple upgraded (added memory, etc.) options, assuming it wasn’t sold out because of insane levels of demand. Even in that, Apple developed a way to make appointments when stock was available for the day so you didn’t have to make a trip to find out they were out.

Let me get back to that appointment thing later.

The stores themselves are beautiful, and clearly laid out. You can clearly see everything they have on display. While there aren’t all available accessories and add ons, you can walk out with at least something good enough. Maybe not the case you wanted, but a decent case. Ditto USB drives, bluetooth headsets, headphones, game controllers, drives, wacom tablets, etc.. And they did this without making the store look crowded.

Minimum store staff? No one staffs more than they need, but there’s far more to “need” than a Gantt chart of bottlenecks. Walk in the store, there’s always someone near the front to greet you, direct you to your appointment, or to ask if you want to talk to sales staff and hook you up. The biggest limit in people was the “genius bar” staff – and they dealt with that as gracefully as possible as well. Again, more on that later.

Minimal customer service? I – and many of my clients – have rarely found people more willing to go the extra mile to find the right loophole, or push the limits, to ensure people are satisfied. Are there exceptions? Of course. I’ve worked customer service though, and can recognize a quality setup when I see it.

I worked customer service at a now-defunct electronics chain for two years in college. Days alternated between boredom (and suffering far too many viewings on the store TV’s of the movie of the month on laserdisc) to lines of irate customers backed up 30-45 minutes deep no matter how hard you tried to get them processed quickly, politely, and their stuff verified for issues, written up, and tweaked, swapped, or put in for repair.

The Genius of Apple was scheduling hard appointments for repairs. Sure, there are edge cases where you would have preferred to simply walk over and wait – and often they could find a late-day opening if you could come back later – but in practical experience heading back over to a store to talk to customer service about broken equipment that needed troubleshooting or repair was something you generally knew you were doing in advance. Getting the appointments set made sure that when you walked in, there was staff ready to talk to you right then, or very soon after. For the waiting you did have to do there was someplace to put down your gear and sit. And of course the aesthetically pleasant store and people walking around.

Sadly, this again, was the Apple of Steve Jobs. Love him or hate him, his focus was an awesome computer, not corporate political posturing. It was also on awesome in the service of long-term business instead of short-term beancounting.

So, the other day, I heard that a standard part of the Apple hiring and training program for their “Geniuses” – their tech support desk techs – is no more. In the past, all of them went to either the Boston or Cupertino campus for an intensive round of training now being supplanted by self-guided training with in-house tools.

I’m a big believer in self-guided training, but as Bastiat observed, there is the seen, and the unseen. Especially for the majority that went to Cupertino, this was a formative experience shared by all of their in-store tech staff. As one podcast put it, selfies at One Infinite Loop were a milestone in their career. They all got to see the mothership, as it were (and the new office building looks an awful lot like one, truth be told).

The seen? Saved money. The unseen? Lost morale, lost unity of purpose. It’s a minor sign, but yet another one that Apple is throwing away that which made them not slip into mediocrity in favor of saving a few pennies here and there.