2014-01-07

Co.Labs

Angela Ahrendts Might Be The Brain Apple's Been Looking For

Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts will fill the long-empty position as Apple's retail chief this spring, but does she have what it takes to ignite the fire the company needs in the retail game?



When Steve Jobs and his then-retail sage Ron Johnson masterminded the brick and mortar Apple experience, they conceived of a special empathetic mysticism for customers. Employees were imparted with service standards to those comparable to luxury hotels.

The concierge systems began fishtailing during the iPad's release in 2010. Genius Bar workers reported were being overworked. Expectations were pressuring employees to double the amount of customers they'd help per hour. The retail experience was deteriorating into a slow-moving customer stasis. Johnson left in 2011 to help turn around JCPenny. John Browett was hired as replacement, but was fired six months after in October 2012, unable to navigate the corporate culture. Apple has been out of a retail chief since. In October 2013, Apple announced Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts would fill the position in spring of 2014. Here's the kind of problems she's facing as retail chief:

…Only 20 percent of iPhones are sold in Apple Stores. He believes that the other 80 percent are missed opportunities to sell the rest of Apple's suite of products. According to data from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, 52 percent of consumers who bought their iPhones from the Apple Store also own iPads and 30 percent have Mac laptops; among those who got their iPhones from their cellular carriers, only 37 percent have iPads and 20 percent have Mac laptops.

Missed opportunities galore, chalked up to a bad retail experience. Who is Ahrendts to be the one to turn it around?

From a small town 20 miles outside Indianapolis, Ahrendts holds "Midwestern core values," what's described as humility, empathy and sensitivity, close to her professional life.

She started her career at Donna Karan in 1981, and in 2006 left to run British fashion house Burberry, where she's known for her internal transparency and communication with the staff. She's absconded with an "alchemic mix of accessibility and aspiration, mass market and luxury," and has crafted a best-prepped sales team in Burberry stores, integrating traditional retail techniques with iPads, merging the online and in-store shopping experiences.

She knows the potential of the Chinese market, a demographic where Apple has lost out miserably to Samsung, where the phones are cheaper, distribution is wider and the cellular network deals with China Mobile are more lucrative. Apple has nine stores in China. In comparison to Burberry, which has stores in 13 of the 15 major cities on the mainland, and Ahrendts insists on at least one Mandarin-speaking sales associate in every major store, nine seems paltry.

She's an advocate of the gentle sell, aligning nicely with Jony Ive's sales methodology, which rests in the faith of happy customers as better brand ambassadors than salespeople. The creative partnership of Ahrendts and Ives could be a dangerous one. Apple might see a turnaround in their retail establishments yet.

Read Jeff Chu's full profile on Angela Ahrendts in Fast Company here.

[Image: Flickr user Fortune Live Media | Photo by Stefen Chow/Fortune Global Forum]