Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Apple reboots its retail experience, now with temperature checks and long lines

May 19. 2020
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By The Washington Post · Rachel Lerman · BUSINESS, TECHNOLOGY 

SAN FRANCISCO - Apple's retail stores are known for crowded areas of display devices ready for experimenting and the ability to make a purchase without needing to line up at a cash register.

But as the Cupertino, California-based tech giant reopens about 100 of its retail stores globally, the customer experience is bound to feel different. Apple will be enforcing strict social distancing guidelines in its stores, Apple retail and HR chief Deirdre O'Brien wrote in a public letter this weekend. The company will cap the number of people allowed in to keep at least 6 feet between everyone, will require masks and will check customers' temperatures before they enter. Some stores will only do curbside pickup.

Apple said it would also be doing "enhanced deep cleanings" on all display products, as well as tables and other parts of the store. 

"While we know many customers are eager for their local store to reopen, our commitment is to reopen our stores when we are confident the environment is safe," Apple spokesperson Nick Leahy said in an email.

Apple has been one of the tech giants most affected by the coronavirus pandemic, which hit Apple hard when it began spreading across China early this year. Apple will open at least 25 stores in seven states across the U.S. this week, adding to five it unshuttered last week.

Apple stores reopening represent a slow, but accelerating, recovery for the iPhone maker.

Apple was among the first of major American companies to feel the business pain of the coronavirus pandemic as many of its manufacturing plants closed across Asia early this year. Shortly after, Apple shut nearly all of its 510 retail stores across the world.

The company's iPhone sales fell slightly during the first quarter of the year, an indication of how much coronavirus had shaken the company's roots. CEO Tim Cook said production levels had returned to normal, but it is unclear whether Apple is on track to launch a new version of the phone this fall, as it usually does.

Big tech companies are expected to pull through the pandemic in decent economic shape overall, but Apple and Amazon have been dealing with physical effects more than others. Both companies have thousands of workers in warehouses and, in Apple's case, in retail stores. Getting those people back to work in person has meant an exercise in implementing safety measures and navigating government regulations.

Apple's reopenings are a boost for the company symbolically, said Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives, and also will help financially.

"The stores opening back up is a much needed shot in the arm for Cook and Cupertino," he said.

It's unclear exactly how the Apple shopping experience will change with the new measures in place, which eliminate some of the custom experience of shopping at the retailer. But Apple did say people might have to wait in line if the store reaches a limited capacity, and said it will limit the number of staff each customer deals with.

In Berlin, tech worker Rouzbeh Abadi said he waited in line for about 20 minutes to get into an Apple store and check out the new iPad keyboard. Apple staff members asked him why he was there, then made sure he had a mask and used hand sanitizer before he started shopping, he said. An Apple staffer stayed with him the whole time he shopped to help out, and perhaps make sure he stayed at least six feet from others, Abadi said. The experience had a different feel from what he was used to.

"Before, I always went to Apple store to [browse], just because I enjoy it," he said in a message. "But now, I think I won't go there if I have no particular reason."

Apple began reopening stores with similar social distancing measures in China and surrounding areas in mid-March, but waited nearly two months to start swinging open the doors of U.S. stores, as most of country remains under stay-at-home orders.

By the end of the week, Apple plans to have about 30 stores open in the country, making up about 9% of its 271 U.S. locations. Stores will reopen at 25 locations in California, Washington, Florida, Colorado, Hawaii and Oklahoma this week.

The company said it is following local regulations in each city and state. In California and Washington state, where the company is reopening a total of 13 stores, only curbside pickup will be allowed.

"These are not decisions we rush into - and a store opening in no way means that we won't take the preventive step of closing it again should local conditions warrant," O'Brien wrote.

Apple's precautions and limits on its retail stores echo what many other physical locations have already put in place - something anyone who has waited an hour to get into a grocery store this year will recognize. The future of retail for the foreseeable future will almost certainly involve masks for all, long lines and wide berths between customers.

 

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