The Apple Store – a wonderment in itself

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.

Jobs vision
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.

Beyond service
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.

The death of an I-con – Steve Jobs

“The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented,” US President Barack Obama said in a statement.

Lest I offend anyone, I will not call any names. But I do believe that among the 125 billion or so people who have lived on this earth, only a handful would have impacted the lives of others as much as Steve Jobs – technologist and culture shaper – who passed away this past week. Steve Jobs was a giant not only of his time but of all times. The unbelievable story of his adoption, his brief time as a college (university) drop-in and drop-out, his firing from the company he created (Apple), his capacity to re-engineer himself, his creative genius, his address at the Stanford University 2005 commencement, the unique products he created and his legacy are sure to be the subject of books, research and analysis for years to come.

Whether one’s interest is his story-book beginning, his technological brilliance, his marketing genius or the marvellous products he created, the sadness of his life cut short by cancer was as palpable as that experienced with the recent passing of Michael Jackson. Lest we forget he created the Apple Macintosh, iPad, an iPhone and iPod products, products which others can only copy, proving that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. For the spiritually minded his embrace of Buddhism and his vegetarian lifestyle would attract a special affinity and emotion. His death has generated a viral explosion of email across the world and we now are reminded that when he stepped down as CEO and President of the most valuable company in America, his annual salary was $1 per year.

Dots, love and loss and death
In his Stanford commencement speech, Jobs spoke not of the great products he had created or the big ideas he had but only of three simple everyday things – connecting the dots, love and loss, and thirdly, death.

In 2004 Jobs was diagnosed with an incurable type of pancreatic cancer that could end his life in three to six months. Despair turned to joy when his doctors thought, somewhat prematurely that the strain of cancer was in fact curable, leading Mr Jobs to state one year later that he was looking forward to living for a few more years. That was, sadly, not to be and all he had was five more years.

He told his audience in 2004 that “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new … time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” he advised the young people.

Who was this man Jobs and what was so special about him? So profound and respected was Jobs that one day after his death, he was on the cover page of that other iconic publication – The Economist – which said in its Obituary page that Jobs “stood out in three ways – as a technologist, as a corporate leader and as somebody who was able to make people love what had previously been impersonal, functional gadgets.”

That Jobs failed academically is simply a demonstration of how non-typical and revolutionary he was. He proved that there are other things besides degrees and education: ambition, vision, energy, focus and resilience. Education for some people only is a hindrance.

Jobs liked to see himself as a hippy, permanently in revolt against the establishment, but ended up being hailed by many of those corporate giants as one of the greatest chief executives of his time. He used the limitation of not being an engineer to great advantage. Not for himself but for millions of persons around the world who were not mere consumers of his inventions but adoring followers. His obsession with product design and aesthetics, and with making advanced technology simple to use was legendary. The genius in him allowed him to transform a technical idea or some half-invention into a user’s dream.

Those who have used his product simply could not understand why others would deny themselves the privilege of owning or using one of his products – whether it is a digital music player, the smartphone or the tablet computer. While the traditional players in the industry may have been riled with the audacity of his ideas, they all marvelled at the way he transformed music, telecoms and the news business.

Surviving and succeeding from failure
He lived by some simple precepts including the one about the dots. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future,” reflecting how a casual course in calligraphy led to the exciting fonts introduced into the Mac Apple was designing.

His philosophical outlook was also extended to the loss of the job at the company he created. He was only thirty at the time, riding on the crest of the wave of success from the release of the Macintosh, described by Jobs as Apple’s greatest invention. Not that he did not take the firing hard at the time; he said he felt he had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down. But he then used that disappointment to turn getting fired from Apple into the best thing that could have ever happened to him. Success at Apple had come early, but at a heavy price. The break in his relationship with Apple made him into a beginner again – free enough to allow him to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

The return of the master
He started the company named NeXT and then Pixar which went on to create the world’s first computer animated feature film, Toy Story. Pixar became the most successful animation studio in the world and in 1996 Apple bought NeXT and with it Steve Jobs and NeXT’s technology that was at the heart of Apple’s renaissance.

His achievements after his return are an inspiration to any businessperson whose career has taken a turn for the worse. The way in which Mr Jobs revived the company he had co-founded and turned it into the world’s biggest tech firm, (bigger even than Bill Gates’ Microsoft, the company that had outsmarted Apple so dramatically in the 1980s), is the story of fiction, except that it is true.

But what was perhaps most astonishing about Mr Jobs was the fanatical loyalty he managed to inspire in customers.

The users show off his products by bumper stickers, have fan clubs and see themselves as part of a community, with Mr Jobs as its leader. There was that bond or relationship that came from his obsession that he was only concerned about what his users wanted: simplicity, functionality and elegance.

Steve Jobs had been ailing for some months and had handed over the reins of the company to his deputy. During the last few months of his life he was regularly in pain, too weak to climb stairs.

Yet he wanted his children to understand why he wasn’t always there for them and commissioned a biography that is destined to be a bestseller.

‘I want them to know me’
“I wanted my kids to know me,” Jobs was quoted as saying by biographer Pulitzer Prize nominee Walter Isaacson, when he asked the Apple Inc co-founder why he authorized a tell-all biography after living a private, almost ascetic life.

“I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did,” Jobs told Isaacson in their final interview at Jobs’ home in Palo Alto, California.

I started this column with a tribute from President Obama the politician. Here is Microsoft’s Bill Gates speaking of Jobs: “For those of us lucky enough to get to work with him, it’s been an insanely great honor.”