Apple’s main flagship store in San Francisco, the one at 1 Stockton Street, has never been a particularly nice place. It’s on a busy corner with treeless sidewalks, and for the last couple of years, the street outside has been taken over by the massive Central Subway construction project. Inside the store is pretty basic, only a little larger than one you’d find at a mall, and just as generic when viewed from inside or out. It still gets a line when a new iPhone debuts, but Tim Cook makes his own appearance at the Palo Alto store instead.
The company is wisely replacing this with a brand-new flagship store a few blocks away, on San Francisco’s Union Square. It opens to the public this Saturday, and on Thursday, retail head Angela Ahrendts showed off the store to journalists, unveiling several new design elements. Some just seem like rebrandings: The space for educational workshops is now called The Forum and has a really big video screen, and the off-the-floor space where Apple reps help business customers is now called The Boardroom. But other changes could have a bigger effect on how you use the Apple Store, even if you never visit San Francisco. We hope they can trickle down to more locations, flagships and mall-sized stores alike.
A fitting room for your iPhone
Sure, you can buy iPads, iPhones, Apple Watches, and even Macs at an Apple Store, but we’re willing to bet a good chunk of the customers are there for accessories, like replacement cables and chargers, and of course a trusty iPhone case. Typically, iPhone cases sold at retail are packaged in boxes, so you can’t see how they feel on your phone unless you’re willing to rudely open a bunch of boxes, possibly destroying them in the process.
Case section at new SF Apple Store lets you try them out on your own phone. pic.twitter.com/4DRjzRmzvp— Harry McCracken (@harrymccracken) May 19, 2016
The new Apple Store in Union Square has a wall of cases you can try on your phone, letting you make a more informed decision: Does this case’s leather feel expensive? Does that case’s texture make it harder to drop? Does this one add too much bulk for my jeans pocket? It’s a great idea we’d like to see in every Apple Store.
A waiting area
If half the people in the Apple Store are there for a new iPhone case, the other half are standing around waiting for their friend and using the free Wi-Fi. Normally, a great place to do this is leaning up on the table where they show the iPods, but the new Apple Store in Union Square has integrated a “rejuvenated” plaza, nestled between the store and the Hyatt next door, as public space. It’s got seating, free Wi-Fi, and it’ll be open 24/7. (Although night owls beware: Union Square isn’t the most inviting place in the middle of the night.)
The public plaza and Genius Grove pic.twitter.com/4XuU2P0FMr— Matthew Panzarino (@panzer) May 19, 2016
The plaza contains a fountain designed by artist Ruth Asawa, which had been there since 1973. This fountain was a point of contention when Apple first submitted its plans for the site—the original design for the store was criticized as being too stark, just a big metal wall on the Stockton side and no plaza at all. So the final design keeps the plaza and the fountain, and Apple says it will include a public plaza at other “significant” stores. Not at the mall, in other words, but we still applaud the trend of including peaceful spaces in busy retail areas.
A deskless help desk?
You can talk to a Genius at the new Apple Store in Union Square, but you won’t be bellied up to the bar. Instead, Apple is rebranding the Genius Bar as the “Genius Grove,” insisting that it’s somehow an improvement to eliminate the desk and let customers “get support working side-by-side with Geniuses under the comfortable canopy of local trees in the heart of the store.”
This might be one of those things you have to experience to figure out if there’s any benefit. When something isn’t working, I just want help fixing it, and it’d be nice if I didn’t have to go into a swamp or a dungeon to get that help. But whether there’s a desk or not doesn’t seem like a big deal. Apple Stores already lack a checkout—instead you flag down an employee with a handheld point-of-sale system—so having a desk for the Genius Bar at least gave the store that little bit of structure.
Don’t expect Apple to plant any local trees in the Apple Store at your local mall anytime soon, but as more stores get this redesign, we expect to see more Genius Bars ditch the bar part. It’s just too bad that Apple doubled-down on the bar’s already twee name with Genius Grove.