Ahead of the April Apple Watch product launch, people are struggling to make sense of it in much the same way iPhone confounded many in the market in 2007.

Think back to April 2007, buzz for the original iPhone was building as the initial launch neared. Reviewers (Apple fans and naysayers alike) worried that the product was off-target (missing a keyboard?), over-priced for a phone (who would pay $500 for a phone?), and too complicated. Everyone remembers Steve Ballmer famously saying, "There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.”

While iPhone certainly won the original smartphone race, the Apple Watch is drawing similar concerns but for different reasons. Apple Watch’s cost, usefulness, and lifespan are frequently mentioned as concerns, but a more pressing barrier to adoption may actually be a very different customer buying experience. Unlike other Apple devices, consumers won’t have the same initial access to touch and play with the Apple Watch in-store. Apple is already warning consumers not to line up outside for launch day.

The expected in-store experience will be unlike any previous Apple product. In a recent blog, Patricio Robles walks through a very different—and complicated—in-store Apple Watch shopping experience. Consumers have two options: Either buy online or make an appointment (ala the Genius Bar) to try on and experience the Apple Watch. The high-end edition won’t even be in most Apple Stores. Will the average Apple consumer be willing to adapt to what could be perceived as barriers to purchase? Apple thinks so.

There are three key factors Apple needs to address to successfully shift customer experience and expectations:

  1. Pre-launch customer communication and employee training
  2. Omni-channel integration and shopping experience 
  3. Employee service delivery in the stores

This is Apple retail chief Angela Ahrendts first real chance to transform the in-store experience for product launches. Ahredts is spending considerable time and effort communicating to Apple Store employees to help reset shopper expectations and behaviors. She is quoted as telling Apple Store employees to let customers know that “the best way to get in line is online.” Apple is also actively communicating these differences via digital and traditional media channels.

The keystone across all of this is Apple’s ability to deliver a simple and seamless shopping experience across channels and touchpoints. All the PR and communication work put into pre-launch expectation setting won’t matter if on launch day consumers are confronted with a disjointed reality across and in-between touchpoints.

The final experiential component will be the ability of in-store sales staff to adapt to this differentiated selling experience being created for a single product in a store environment already known for high-touch, hands-on personal service. Just messaging to customers to go online won’t cover it. Employees will need to be able to balance very different shopping processes and experiences for in-store shoppers.

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