I am unable to carry my review of the 2010 Report of the Auditor General as I am in the USA without access to all the relevant material. I will resume and conclude that review next week. Instead, today’s column is about a shopping experience I had on Friday that – to use a term consistent with today’s column – blew my mind.
I could not help but share it with the readers of Business Page and to contrast it with our antediluvian Guyana.
Ever since as Christopher L. Ram & Co. I first used a computer, around the mid-eighties, I have always gone for what are referred to as the PC, as in PC versus the Apple (formerly the Macintosh and then Mac) rather than in PC versus desktop.
No doubt influenced by my conservative embrace of habit, and given the practicalities of the wider range of software to support an accounting practice, Ram & McRae has stuck steadfastly with the PC – both the portable laptop and the desktop which, except for the monitor, survives largely unchanged in its configuration, but certainly not its capacity or speed.
Yet one cannot help but admire the Apple, the brainchild of Steve Jobs, one of the world’s most influential men, and the product of its most successful company, ever. I felt strongly enough about the death of Jobs in October 2011 that I dedicated an entire column to his life and works (S/N October 9, 2011). I read Walter Isaacson’s fascinating account of the remarkable life of a man whose passion for perfection and brutal drive for excellence are credited with having revolutionised six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. My experience last Friday suggests that there is a seventh – how to create the most successful retail outlet with annual sales of tens of millions of dollars. And to have done this when on-line shopping is now the vogue and Amazon is able to find and supply anything – well almost anything – under the sun, is an achievement without parallel.
The Apple Store is Jobs’ invention even if the success belongs to Ron Johnson, the retailer’s guru, who carried out the vision, and the army of staff who make it all possible with their boundless enthusiasm, energetic drive and religious passion.
Coke as in Coca Cola, is often described as the triumph of marketing over substance. Apple is the ultimate triumph: marketing and substance.
The combination of vision, enthusiasm, drive and passion just described – and more – were on display when I visited the Apple Store in one of America’s ubiquitous malls to have them look at my son’s Apple computer.
It was early morning, but time seems never to matter to the owners of an Apple computer who even with the occasional product flop, seem to have an exceptional brand loyalty that suggests a faith that “Jobs is in charge”. America is still clawing its way out of a housing bubble that threatened to bring the economic house down – but that is hardly evident among the army of Apple fans.
To them the Apple Store is their equivalent of the fundamentalists’ mosque or church, a place to meet fellow believers in the vision, to share life changing experiences, and to learn about the next version of the ever evolving and improving products.
As Johnson said, even though Apple products can be purchased for less elsewhere, people visit Apple’s stores for the experience, not only for the products on offer.
The Apple store is a place where the faithful congregate for reassurance that the founder lives on, as much in the products as in the people. Almost invariably, the store is likely to be the busiest shop in the entire mall but still, the greeting as one enters is sincere but not intrusive, warm and signals a willingness to help.
The store is a melting pot of people of various ethnicities, gender, age and size, the attendants in their distinctive blue polo shirts each carrying the electronic version of the slate, each with access to a common data base and all integrated.
The genius bar
Having explained the purpose of my visit, I was given – electronically, of course – an appointment with the Genius Bar, the name of the in-store service centre for which only the best are recruited after more than a half dozen interviews. The occasional or new visitor might have dropped in for a specific purpose but then finds the range of products so helpfully and usefully displayed almost irresistible.
One does not leave the store without looking at all the products, from the high end computers and phones to the mundane but very effective cleaning supplies they stock. Not surprisingly, the brand name was iClean.
As I waited for the hard drive of my son’s computer to be replaced, I managed to walk around and with the help of an Asian attendant, bought two cans of iClean. I could see no cash register or cashier so, as I took out the cash to pay, I furtively looked around to see what he would do with it. Pulling an exquisitely well-hidden drawer from under one of the display tables he took the money, asked for my email address, confirmed it by showing me his handheld device, and gave me my change.
Reluctantly, but not wanting to be stopped on my way out with items but no evidence of payment, I asked for a receipt. I just emailed it to you, he said, as if that was the most obvious way to do business. It was their LCDS in practice.
The next surprise was to see that the store had a sign-language expert attending to the special needs of two children brought in by their parents and using the Apple programme designed for such circumstances. The attendant was competent in more than sign-language ability: she was a model of patience and understanding that we see only in a few of our teachers.
I wondered whether this is one of the things that distinguish the successful from the average businesses, the strong from the mediocre countries and the caring from the insensitive societies.
The millions who have read Isaacson’s book on – not of – Jobs, knew about his obsession in creating the perfect store, where everything is done, and redone more than once, until perfection, like Jobs’ Buddhist nirvana, is achieved.
But there must be something more that the simple elegance or the perfect symmetry of the walls meeting doors, doors blending with the ceiling and ceiling’s contrasting with floors, that would make people willing to pay more in store for a product available elsewhere.
Johnson thinks that what drives the phenomenon are the several components of the experience, the most important of which is that the staff are not focused on selling stuff, but on building relationships and trying to make people’s lives better, which is what Jobs was all about.
At the Apple stores, the remuneration of employees is not based on how much sales the employee or the store one generates. Accordingly, they do not need to encourage people to buy pricey products or services they would hardly use.
By connecting with their customers, understanding their needs and helping them figure out how to satisfy those needs, even if it is a product which Apple does not carry, the Apple store employee builds a relationship with the customer that not even Bill Gates has managed to recreate, let alone displace.
Exploit the sucker, no one is looking
At the same time I wondered about the prehistoric manner in which retailers and departmental stores do business in Guyana. Maybe I am being naive, in even entertaining the thought.
So many of our retailers pay little attention to the quality of their employees, selected after the most perfunctory of interview, in receipt of remuneration below the relevant minimum wage, let alone a living wage. They care not about the defective and shoddy products they pass on to their customers under the unlawful “goods not returnable” stipulation.
With a couple of standout exceptions – I think of Nigels and Bounty, Courts and Singers, Digicel and GT&T – the attitude of many of our retailers is that there will always be a poor sucker to be exploited the next day.
I wondered too how none of our retail companies would grant their employees a stake in their business, many of them keeping the real accounts of their business to themselves and away from the GRA.
At Apple, the employee is part owner, however modest.
The question we need to ask is not whether the Apple store model is possible in Guyana but rather whether anyone who is anybody in Guyana is interested, including the government and the consumer representatives. Our Sale of Goods Act setting out the obligations of the seller goes back to the UK of 1893; the consultation on a Consumer Protection Act took nearly a decade for it to secure passage in the National Assembly and it is anyone’s guess how long it will take to bring it into force.
Four months after the November 28 general elections, the President is yet to announce a Minister of Trade. One of the biggest businesses in Guyana over the past fifteen years is the second hand vehicle market and yet there is no law regulating them. No wonder they can sell a five million dollar vehicle on a two month warranty but with little or no paper work, including a VAT invoice. It is really unfortunate that they manage to do so without more attention from the Guyana Revenue Authority, or justice in the courts.
One lawyer representing such a business even had the courage to say that the consumer should be more careful about what they buy under the maxim caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.
Operating under an unregulated regime of consumer laws, an absence of consumer activism, a consumer unaware of her common law rights and a government that is far friendlier to business than it is to the consumer, our businesses have little incentive and no compulsion to upgrade their business model or the quality of their service. They do not realise that their store environments and customer service are unimaginative.
Johnson is adamant that any online store can transact, but success comes only to the stores that enrich people’s lives and add value beyond simply providing merchandise. So, how does a store accomplish those seemingly illusive objectives? They need to move, as Johnson said, from a transaction mind-set—“how do we sell more stuff?” – to a value-creation mind-set.
Perhaps the absence of a challenge from on-line stores, minimal competition and the whole environment, discourage any imagination and innovation. But as Apple shows, there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
In last week’s column I recommended under the paragraph headed Local Loans that the debts of over $13 billion shown as owing to the state by defunct or dormant public corporations such as LINMINE, the porous Guyana Power and Light and the long-dead Guyana Airways Corporation and carried in the national accounting records should be “written off and charged against the Contingencies Fund”. That should have read Consolidated Fund. The error was corrected in the on-line edition of the Sunday Stabroek. The error is regretted.