No place for money in the brave new world of the Apple Store

Posted January 13, 2011 in strategy  |  No Comments so far

The Apple Store on Regent Street has been open for a while, but my first visit was just before Christmas. I went to get some things for my work laptop, and had a slightly confusing time.

The Apple Store on Regent Street

Once I’d found the stuff I needed, I spent an awkward few minutes hopelessly looking for somewhere to pay. Mild panic gripped me when I realised that it wasn’t going to happen – because there were no tills. No tills! And not only were there no tills, there were no signs saying “Pay Here”, no queues of patient shoppers, no beeping scanners. I simply could not figure out how to purchase the stuff I was carrying – a strange feeling to have in a retail environment.

Luckily a passing staff member noticed my confusion and asked if I was OK. I asked about paying for my things and he said, “that’s fine, we can do that right here”. Using an iPod Touch to scan my things, he then processed my card using equipment tucked away discreetly behind a bench. I was finally free to leave the store.

At first I thought Apple just wanted to use technology to look clever while streamlining the buying process. But maybe there was a deeper motive. After all, Apple doesn’t mess around when it comes to design – they execute well, but they also plan well (let’s leave Ping aside for the moment). So what’s the thinking behind the oddly invisible Apple Store purchase process? Here’s my take on it.

Show money the door

The central principle, stated simply, is this: get rid of money. Remove money from the space. Go as far as possible to extract money, the signs of money, the sights and sounds of money, from the Apple Store environment.

Putting this into practise means that there should be no tills, no barriers, no staff members sitting behind desks holding barcode scanners. No “Pay Here” signs dangling from the roof. No obvious places for shoppers to form queues. By taking these steps, the space can be wiped clean of the idea of money.

But why do this? Why take these steps when they’ll cost money while confusing customers, who are extremely accustomed to how normal shops work?

There has to be a good reason for doing it, and there is: to remove money as a mediating presence between the shopper and the product.

Money gets in the way (click for full size)

Money muddies our thinking. When we’re reminded that it exists, we can’t forget about it. When it’s on our minds, every decision we make is influenced by it. It becomes a kind of lens through which we process the world.

For most retailers this isn’t a big problem because it can be exploited. Think of the discount trick – you see a pair of OK-but-nothing-special shoes, then notice a sticker saying “20% off” and suddenly you want the shoes. So-so products can be enhanced by a money message; introducing money into the dynamic can make people more likely to buy. But while this is all very well for the likes of Tesco, Apple is playing a different game.

iThing, you complete me

Apple really doesn’t want us thinking about money when we encounter Apple products. It wants us to engage directly with them, without money intervening. The connection should be emotional, not functional or financial. Thoughts like “that’s cheap” or “is this discounted?” undermine this connection.

Instead, Apple want us to imagine our lives having been enriched and transformed by the snazzy new iThing that looks so glorious in this pristine store. Without money getting in the way, with no visible reminder of its influence, it’s easier to conceive of the iThing as being in our grasp. Without things like checkout queues subconsciously reminding us of money, our desire for the iThing can take more easily root in our minds.

Apple is creating a kind of post-money environment where decisions are based on emotion, not utility value, and that this is why they’ve erased manifestations of money from their store. It fits in with Apple’s broader strategy of being more like a luxury brand than a technology company. And it works – at least if my experience is anything to go by.

When I got back to the office I realised I hadn’t even checked how much my stuff cost, and was amazed to find that I’d paid £25 for a USB network dongle without batting an eyelid. If I ever visit the Apple Store again, I’ll have to be on my guard.

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