I believe former Burberry CEO, Angela Ahrendts, did in fact disrupt the traditional department store model, specifically through her seamless and spectacular integration of the Internet and technology. Indeed, when one steps into Burberry’s London flagship, it’s like stepping into a technological extravaganza, taking “high-tech, high-touch” to another level, empowering consumers and providing an awesome shopping experience. And upon entering and shopping the website, one has an identical experience, however without the 3-D physical sensation. Burberry’s website states its mission as “seamlessly blurring physical and digital worlds.” Lauded on both sides of the pond as some kind of rock star, Ahrendts caught the attention of Apple CEO Tim Cook, who lured her to head up Apple’s retail business.
Now, everybody is wondering what she’s going to be doing in her new role. And that’s no small question as she sits in the enchanted land of “the next big thing.” Apple already disrupted the world of retailing when it launched its stores under Steve Jobs in 2001. Currently, with over 400 stores worldwide, it’s still the most productive retail space in the world, in all of history, averaging over $5000 per square foot. So the first question one might ask is: why on earth would Apple want to disrupt such incredible performance? Secondly, if that is what is expected of Ms. Ahrendts, how would she disrupt it?
What Do Apple and Burberry Have in Common?
According to an article in The New York Times, Apple “turned the boring computer sales floor into a sleek playroom filled with gadgets.” Likewise, it could be said that Burberry turned the boring department store sales floor into a sleek playroom filled with gadgets. Furthermore, ask anyone at Burberry which other retailer the company most resembles, and the answer is not Prada, Chanel, Nordstrom, Saks or other traditional upscale department stores. It’s Apple.
The connection makes sense when you think about the fact that both retailers are brilliant design companies determined to become leading lifestyle brands with technology at the heart. However, Apple is a technology company that became a lifestyle brand, and Burberry is a lifestyle brand that has transformed itself into a $3 billion digital pioneer.
In Silicon Valley, among companies like Facebook and Twitter, Burberry is viewed as a brilliant example of visionary thinking, a leader in digital marketing, commerce and community building. Does that sound a lot like Apple?
So What Can The Burberry Visionary Bring to Apple?
Steve Jobs was the original visionary for Apple, and the bridge between the engineers and consumers. He understood how to turn raw technology into cool and uniquely designed digital devices, as well as how to create an awesome and addictive shopping experience. Likewise, Ahrendts was the bridge at Burberry, understanding technology and how to use it in ways that would provide an equally (but different) addictive and cool shopping experience, which is seamlessly translated online as well.
A Snapshot of Cool
Stepping into Burberry’s London flagship store, the customer is “wowed” with a 40-foot-high LED screen streaming live fashion show videos, of-the-moment Hollywood stars frolicking in the sun while wearing the brand, and other videos projecting modern lifestyle activities. The store completely immerses visitors who opt into its magic in a high-tech, high-touch multimedia experience. More than 500 speakers and 100 screens are synchronized to disperse information and allow customers to interactively engage with the brand.
Clothing is embedded with RFID chips, which can be read by screens and mirrors. When a customer picks up an item, the RFID tag triggers the nearby screen or mirror to reveal multimedia content about the item—how it was made, fabric, stitching, craftsmanship, how it can be worn. Like the brand, the store fuses history and innovation.
The store has no cash registers. Store associates carry iPads with a log of the customer’s previous purchase history. The information helps drive up the average transaction value and builds an immense trove of customer behavioral data for Burberry.
When customers walk into the London store and opt into this immersive experience, Burberry’s not only blurs the lines between physical and digital, it merges the neurological with technological. The store is a model of digitally advanced consumer commerce that is a harbinger of the next wave of stores to compete in an increasingly online world.
So what elements of Ahrendts’ so-called disruptive vision in the traditional department store space would translate to Apple? And why does the Apple retail experience need any disruption to begin with? Especially since from its inception, the addictive experience has been its major driving force for achieving the rank of the most productive retail space in history.
One reason for the need of an infusion of “new” are Apple’s core Millennial loyalists. They originally turned Apple stores into a “third place” to hang out for tech lovers: work, home and Apple (as did Starbuck’s for coffee lovers). But like everything else in their lives, the Millennials want to be “wowed” 24/7 or they get bored. So without having a “next big thing” introduction for about four years, Apple’s stores may be getting a little stale for this cohort.
So it’s possible that Tim Cook anticipates Ahrendts will infuse some of the Burberry techno-excitement into the current Apple experience. It would have to be compatible and additive to Apple’s cool, crisp and modern environment, a challenge, but doable. Also, in my opinion, I believe Ahrendts can further “coolify” the Apple online experience, by more seamlessly integrating the in-store energy as well as strengthening an omnichannel interchangeability, as she did for Burberry.
Next Up: “Wearables?”
It’s hard to believe that “the next big thing” will be wearable technology, yet the notion has gone way beyond the “buzz” stage, and it’s likely another reason Apple brought Ahrendts on board. In fact, rumors have been circulating that Apple is creating an iWatch computer as a fashion accessory.
Further evidence of a focus on wearables among the technology giants was rival Google’s recent hiring of marketing, fashion and design maven, Ivy Ross (maybe spooked by Apple’s Ahrendts hire), to head up its foray into wearable technology, most visibly hyped by its Google Glass launch. Ross’s fashion credentials are impressive, having held executive positions at Coach, Calvin Klein and Gap. Regarding technology, she was quoted with this bit of esoteric thought: “Can technology be something that frees us up and keeps us in the moment, rather than taking us out of it?” I’m not quite sure what she meant by that question, but her colleagues at Google probably do, and maybe that kind of thinking won her the job. Google is also working with Luxottica (owner of Oakley and Ray-Ban eyewear) to make Glass more fashionable.
More revealing, roughly half a billion dollars was invested in the wearable technology space last year. However, what is finally becoming apparent as the first “clunky” looking wearables hit the market, is that while Steve Jobs was uniquely blessed with the ability to design fashionable technology, the rest of techno-world is learning fairly quickly that they are merely Steve Jobs wannabes. A Business of Fashion article described Glass: “When people slip on Google Glass, they resemble the character Seven of Nine from ‘Star Trek: Voyager,’ who had cybernetic implants in her face, signs that she once was subsumed into the dehumanizing Borg.”
Anecdotally, many of Samsung’s new Galaxy Gear watches are for sale on eBay. Nike has been struggling with its FuelBand fitness-tracker bracelet, and their design director left to join Apple, which some believe is a sign that Apple and Nike will be partnering on wearables in the future.
Additionally, there is good reason to believe, now that Ahrendts is heading up retail, that Apple will wade into technological apparel fashion, particularly since they previously hired Paul Deneve, former CEO of Yves Saint Laurent.
Cook Plus Ahrendts Equals Three
The potential synergy created by a Cook/Ahrendts team is enormous.
On Burberry’s cool, awesome experience, both online and off; its perfection of the omnichannel model; its cultural and community building and nurturing; and its brand integrity, discipline and control, I believe Mr. Cook and Ms. Ahrendts are very much on the same page.
However, Mr. Cook would not have hired Ms. Ahrendts if he merely wanted an incremental evolution for Apple retail. In the spirit of “the next big thing,” it’s likely he has an expectation for big disruptive things from Ahrendts.
Another quote out of Business of Fashion: “Om Malik, a tech blogger, wrote about Apple’s hiring of Ahrendts: “This new intimate computing era means that Apple has to stop thinking like a computer company and more like a fashion accessory maker, whose stock in trade is not just great design but aspirational experience.”
Steve Jobs did “aspirational experience” beyond awesome. Does Ms. Ahrendts have what it takes to disrupt what Jobs created, enough to bring the next big thing to Apple retail?
I believe she does.