Thursday, May 19, 2011

Apple: A Decade of Retail Revolution

On May 19, 2001, the first Apple stores opened (more or less simultaneously) in Tysons Corner, Virginia and the Glendale Galleria. While the stores were eagerly awaited, they were also greeted with some understandable skepticism. Gateway had notably flamed out in retail, having to close all of their stores and Sony had been flip-flopping with a retail strategy during this same time period as well.

One of our favorite quotes on Apple’s retail strategy comes from a story headlined: Sorry Steve, Here’s Why Retail Stores Won’t Work. The story explains in some detail why getting into retail is a bad idea and ends with a quote from David A. Goldstein, who states, "I give them two years before they're turning out the lights on a very painful and expensive mistake".

Unfortunately, for us, David had some company. In our Retail Watch newsletter from July of 2001, we extol on the virtues of how cool the stores, saying “it helps that Apple’s stuff is cool itself—their product design is second to none and showcased within this amazing new environment”. Unfortunately, we also go on to say, “It will be very hard to ever make any money”. Oops.

So, how are the Apple stores doing? Well, we were only a few billion dollars off when assessing future profitability! In fact, the stores are obscenely profitable—300 stores Internationally, and over $2 billion in profits on $9 billion in sales. More to the point, they are one of the few branded retail stores (Nike and Coach join the ranks) that succeed in both elevating the image of the overall brand while delivering high levels of profitability.

Other numbers are equally astounding:

• Sales per square foot, a key measure in a retailer’s productivity, are estimated at around $5,000 per square foot! No one else in retail even comes close.

• Traffic counts are equally amazing, particularly in such a condensed space. Apple is averaging 15,000 customers per week in their stores, which is extraordinary given the compact store size.

Now, since we owned up to a “slightly” off prediction on Apple’s retail prospects, we also want to point out that it is a radically different company today than in 2001 (here comes the mea culpa):

• In 2001, Apple was a relatively small computer seller with a 3% market share. We still maintain that those margins on computers and the relative difficulty of the computer sales cycle does make selling "computers" profitably a daunting experience. Apple was “only” a $5 billion company back in 2001.

• Apple is now a huge consumer products retailer. Selling iPods, iTouches, iPhones and the like, in droves, is a very efficient retail proposition, accompanied by higher (and controlled) margins. The relative levels of profitability (and overall revenues) sky-rocketed once this shift took place. For history’s sake, the first iPod debuted in October of 2001 while the country was pre-occupied with post 9/11 matters. In 2011, Apple could well hit $100 billion in total revenues. Wow!

So, it becomes a classic "chicken and egg" dilemma. Could have Apple ever been a successful retailer without the dramatic introduction of game changing products like the iPOd? Conversely, would those products ever had a chance to shine without dedicated retail distribution?

The flipside of Apple’s retail success is that it has encouraged a number of other companies to follow suit. Few, if any (though we’re careful NOW not to make sweeping predictions) will ever come close to reaching Apple’s success: A rare combination of brand, product and an extraordinary retail experience came together to forge this remarkable game-changing retail story. Most companies will find themselves lacking in one or all of these areas.

There are rumors that version 2.0 of Apple retail is on the way. We can't wait.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Who Moved My Chipotle?

In my hometown of LaGrange, Illinois, something curious has happened. The (and one can only presume based on dozens of visits) fabulously successful Chipotle branch in the heart of our downtown moved…approximately three blocks away. Now while this would not seem to be of particular consequence, there are some extenuating circumstances behind the move:

• It moved to the “other” side of the tracks. While the original location was directly across from the commuter train stop, the new location is a block or so North, at the intersection of the two busiest roads in town.

• It moved, very ironically, into a recently closed Baja Fresh location. Yes, it was pre-wired for burritos but the next logical question follows…why exactly did this Baja close?

• It moved to a location with parking, though shared with Walgreens, Caribou and an AT&T store. The parking is certainly a plus over the sometimes “impossible to find a space” downtown location.

So, you ask—what’s the problem? They stayed in the hood and added parking. Let’s examine the other side of the ledger:
• The new location feels (and almost certainly is) smaller. Seating only is for around 50 (at best). Worse, there is no separation between the seats and the line so there is a decidedly uncomfortable feel while queuing or eating. While we have been in tighter Chipotle spaces, the old space (long, with high, exposed ceilings and real character) had a significantly more pleasant feel and atmosphere.

• The old Chipotle was incredibly popular with the teenage crowd. Along with Starbucks a block or so away, it was the de facto hangout in town. Who wants teens hanging around? As long as those teens have money (which the La Grangian version most certainly do), why not. This location is not nearly as central to the walking crowd which is a significant part of downtown traffic, particularly during the (admittedly rare) nice days of Chicago.

In all, a curious move. Could the addition of parking trump all of the other negatives? Was the landlord simply impossible to deal with? We’ll find out. We suspect that business will be down but maybe Chipotle’s magic trumps even a bad real estate play. While we are huge fans of Chipotle, we are once again reminded that all retail is local--while they are winning big time on a national scale, this might be a local loss.