Last week, the buzz was significant. Rumours were flying around concerning what Apple was planning for the 10th anniversary of its first retail store. Some suspected Apple might suprise us with the next iPhone, while others guessed at a massive re-design of the stores themselves.
Today, if you had walked into any Apple store in Canada or the U.S. the world you would have seen the change right before your eyes. And yet, unless you were very familiar with Apple’s usual merchandising, you might have missed it completely.
The clean, wood-veneered tabletops which display the latest gear from Cupertino, now include something new to look at: The Smart Sign.
In effect, the Smart Sign is nothing more than an iPad 2 encased in a lucite block, giving you access to the touch screen and the home button, but nothing else. On the iPad’s screen runs a single app. The app is programmed to give shoppers more information on the product they’re looking at, be it an iPhone, iPod or yes, even an iPad. The concept is bindingly simple, and not even original: select restaurants have been using iPads to enhance the meal and drink ordering routine almost since the device’s debut a year ago.
What makes Apple’s implementation of the Smart Sign different is the way the app is tied into the rest of the Apple Store systems. One of the buttons that is always available at the bottom of the app’s interface is labeled “Specialist.” Tapping this button gives you the option to immediately add yourself to a queue to speak face-to-face with one of the stores many associates. Think of it like that flight attendant button you used to see in every airplane. Except, in this case, when you press the flight attendant button, it tells you where in the queue you are.
Behind the scenes, the store’s system then behaves like taxi dispatch service, sending out a message to the store associates via their customized iPod Touches which dangle around their necks. Associates can then accept the call, at which point the system shows them where in the store the requested originated.
Once you see the whole system in action, you can’t help but wonder, is Apple merely using their own stores as a test-bed for new retails technology before rolling out a similar offering to other retailers, big and small? If you ask an Apple associate they’ll simply smile politely and tell you they have no knowledge of Apple’s plans for the future of Smart Signs. But you can tell they’ve been thinking the same thing. By the way, in case you were thinking you might just buy a bunch of iPads and download the Smart Sign app… sorry, it’s an Apple-only app… for now.
The Smart Sign wasn’t the only improvement Apple stores received this week. They’ve also added a new section – well actually two tabletops – dedicated to a service called “Personal Setup.” It isn’t much to look at. Just a table with a few MacBook Airs tethered to it. But this is where a store associate will take your brand new Apple purchase out of its box and get you up and running on it so you don’t have to spend your first minutes with your new device all alone. The tech-savvy amongst us might very well mock the need for such a service, but it’s really handy even if you do know exactly what you’re doing. It turns out I got a sneak preview of Personal Setup when I bought my iPad last year. When I left the store, my brand new tablet was already synced with my Apple account and I was able to surf, watch YouTube and anything else I wanted to do. Normally, I would have had to do this sync myself at home on my PC. For a device like an iPad or iPod, it’s not a huge time-saver, but imagine going home with an iMac that had already been configured for you by an expert. Now stop chuckling and imagine you’re someone who has hardly ever used a computer, let alone a Mac running OS X. Ah, now you get it :-)
So while neither the Smart Sign nor the Personal Setup are nearly as exciting as say a new iPhone or a brand new addition to the Apple ecosystem, today’s Apple store enhancements might well prove to be yet another way in which Apple has set a standard to which others will one day hold themselves.