Will Apple’s Express pickup concept drop off post-pandemic?

Photo: Twitter/@marcidale
Sep 17, 2020
Matthew Stern

Since March, plexiglass protectors between cashiers and customers and other in-store add-ons to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus have become familiar sights in retail environments. Now, Apple is taking protective measures a step further. The brand is trying out a store concept designed with a socially-distanced buying experience specifically in mind.

Apple is piloting the new store concept, called Apple Express, in Burlingame, CA, according to 9 to 5 Mac. The first Express store, which has been repurposed from an existing Apple store, positions store staff behind two wood-paneled counters in an area blocked off from direct contact with customers by plexiglass. Behind the counters are two sets of shelves featuring Apple products. One counter is used for pickup orders and the other is used for Genius Bar appointments, which must be scheduled beforehand. Currently, only two customers are allowed in the store at one time. Only Genius Bar appointments and order pickups are allowed — no casual shopping.

Facilitating easy online order pickup has become a big priority for retailers as online shopping has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. Order pickup allows customers to get the products they need without having to wait for delivery and, ideally, allows them to avoid spending too much time inside a store location.

Apple has been consistently attentive to the circumstances of the pandemic with its retail presence. It was one of the first retailers to close all of its U.S. locations as the nation went on lockdown in March. In May it rolled out a chain-wide masking mandate and temperature checks and was quick to re-close stores in areas exhibiting new COVID-19 surges.

California, home to the Apple Express pilot location, is according to an NPR report, among the U.S. states with the most total cases of COVID-19 to date, as of August.

The technology and gadget market has remained strong throughout the pandemic. Other tech retailers, such as Best Buy, have posted record results since March attributable to several factors, including an increased demand for technology to manage stay-at-home working and teaching.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you see in the future for Apple Express and similar concepts after the pandemic ends? Do any other retailers or brands stand out for developing similarly unique approaches in response the pandemic?

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"It is possible that these Express locations could co-exist with their traditional stores in certain markets to address an ongoing need for quick pick up/consultation."

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14 Comments on "Will Apple’s Express pickup concept drop off post-pandemic?"

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David Naumann
David Naumann
CEO and President, Cogent Creative Consulting
7 months 5 days ago

Some form of express pickup after the pandemic ends would be a welcomed service for Apple customers. If you are picking up an item that you don’t need any help with customers don’t want to wait in a queue to get service. Maybe lockers for pickup would be a good option.

Neil Saunders

I think the idea of express pickup and drop off is sustainable in the longer term as it is ideal for those looking for speed and convenience. However once the virus is under control it will be blended with a fuller store experience. Allowing two shoppers in the store at once, not allowing casual shopping and so forth are consequences of the virus. They are not long-term shifts desired by consumers or retailers.

Brandon Rael

While we all may need the Genius Bar and expert advice every now and again, an express service oriented pickup is exactly what is needed in today’s uncertain climate. Apple’s adjustments are another example of how companies are adapting their operating model to the pandemic-era world.

This approach by Apple is very similar to the BOPIS and curbside pickup strategies leveraged by leading retailers and grocery operations. Safety matters more than ever in the retail world and this will help make things more seamless for Apple’s consumers.

Stephen Rector

The express pickup concept for Apple makes a lot of sense. I can see other retailers launching similar concepts in the future. At the Whole Foods in my neighborhood, the locker setup that David writes about is already in effect. I have not seen anyone use it yet, but it’s in a place in the store where you only have to step in about 10 feet in order to access the locker, so there is zero interaction with associates.

Ryan Grogman

A store location which provides a safe and efficient way to pick up purchased product or have a product consultation on an existing product is a great example of how Apple continues to be innovative in response to the current environment. The appointment-only concept around the Genius Bar is similar to how Best Buy successfully deployed its own appointment-only browsing approach a few months ago. Converting existing Apple retail stores to Apple Express locations would not make as much sense long term because it doesn’t fully align with Apple’s long-term goals around their in-store customer experience. However, utilizing a much smaller footprint, it is possible that these Express locations could co-exist with their traditional stores in certain markets to address an ongoing need for quick pick up/consultation.

Bob Amster

Express service will stay because it makes sense in many instances such as for any purchase that does not require special handling or training in-store. However repurposing stores to remain just Express is not a long-term viable model. Apple devotees like to go into Apple stores and trade geek stories. “They can’t take that away from me.” -George and Ira Gershwin, 1937

Cathy Hotka

Apple may be trying this because of the lines outside their stores. This sounds like a welcome innovation.

Gene Detroyer

We have talked often about how the pandemic has accelerated trends that were already in place. But this is a good example of something specifically developed for these times that I believe will stick and expand.

I walked by the 5th Ave. Apple store yesterday. The line was still a block long. Why not find a way to handle those customers who could be processed quickly and save the primary store for more in-depth shopping?

I don’t know what other retailers could adopt this type of structure. Best Buy comes to mind quickly. What I’m sure of is that where there is a bifurcation of in-depth shopping versus quick solutions, it will work.

Kim DeCarlis

The pandemic is yet another event that has reset the bar for go-forward norms. In order for consumer to feel safe, retailers must find new approaches. Techniques that leverage buy online and pick up in store are likely to persist – both for safety and convenience. This is particularly true when the consumer knows what they want and doesn’t need the casual shopping and browsing experience. Apple Express directly addresses that need. It will be interesting to see how retailers address the casual shopper in a way that is safe and efficient for the business.

Harley Feldman

Apple Express will survive after COVID-19 is gone. Apple is catching up to other retailers that already have this pickup service. It works well for consumers who do not need any store interaction for their purchases. Apple keeping the Genius Bar, even in this limited capacity, is a good idea. Best Buy has done well in providing in-store and curbside pickup.

Craig Sundstrom

What part of the concept: (merely) the pickup window part or the hazmat treatment part of it? I’m guessing the appeal of the latter will fade as the percentage of … uhm, “safety conscious” people drops, but the EZ pickup part of it I think has a future. They might lose the upselling potential of a full store, but satisfying harried customers should win out.

Casey Craig

While the pandemic may have made digital and online order pick-up approaches — like Apple Express — a necessity, consumers are continuing to show they actually prefer the convenience, ease, and consistency of the digital experience. This means the digital-first business model is here to stay, and companies that lean into digital innovation now will see demand from consumers to maintain their digital offerings even as the economy returns to normal.

That goes for traditional brick-and-mortar businesses, too. One example is the DC-based health and entertainment destination, The St. James, which rolled out an all-in-one custom app to digitally enable its customers to safely and conveniently return to their fitness, wellness, and active entertainment routines. It’s a unique approach for a service previously reliant on in-person offerings, but the app has been so successful in keeping customers engaged that there’s almost no question it will become a permanent component of The St. James’ business model.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader
7 months 4 days ago

The Apple Express concept may be an innovation directly developed to address COVID-19 requirements but it is one that has true staying power to address a common problem Apple has with their stores — overcrowding — even before the pandemic struck.

Many of their shoppers are at the store for a Genius Bar appointment or to pick up an order, or for another quick in-and-out visit that could be easily handled by a store associate behind a counter. Why not separate those shoppers and leave the main store more easily available to deeper shopping trips?

Could other retailers use this approach? Perhaps someone like Nike, or Lululemon, or even Nordtrom (this is eerily similar to their Local concept) comes to mind.

Gary Sankary

This will absolutely stick around in my opinion. The pandemic accelerated services that were already in play. This, I believe, is one of those. This is the same company that was a very early adopter for mobile check out. They empowered their store team to check out customers anywhere in the store with an iPhone. This is an extension of that service.

"It is possible that these Express locations could co-exist with their traditional stores in certain markets to address an ongoing need for quick pick up/consultation."

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