Much has been written Angela Ahrendts leaving Burberry to take over Apple’s retail operations but the Guardian has something of a unique take. They argue that a pressing concern is simply managing the queue for tech support (Apple stores await Ahrendts touch as outlets struggle with growing demand, Oct 18).
It’s only a two-hour wait. An ordinary Thursday afternoon at Apple’s flagship UK store in Regent Street, London and a long line of customers snakes across the first floor. The hip technology brand is used to queues for the launch of its latest must-have product, but these people have come carrying faulty iPhones and malfunctioning laptops, desperate for help from one of Apple’s increasingly hard to reach “Genius” experts.
When it opened in Virginia in 2001, the first Apple store was hailed as a retail revolution, allowing shoppers to play with expensive technology without any sales pressure. The emphasis on service, with blue-shirted Geniuses on hand to answer queries and fix broken products, has become almost as important to the Apple brand as the aesthetic appeal of its products. But the whole experience is under pressure as a relatively small number of shops struggle to cope with rapidly growing customer numbers. …
The Regent Street outlet, for example, employs at least 120 Geniuses. Each sees up to 30 customers a day but it is impossible to book an appointment less than a week in advance. If the problem is urgent you can turn up and queue, but it could be a very long wait. This week, a gaggle of well-trained, polite and friendly staff worked their way along the line trying to answer simple queries and advise people on alternatives to queueing. But it is hard to redirect people when every nearby shop has its Geniuses fully booked for days on end.
The article goes on to note that this is not just an issue in London. It certainly can be an issue here in Chicagoland. While a quick check of my nearest Apple store shows that they currently have a number of appointments open for tomorrow, Friday morning already has no availability. There are even reports of scalpers hawking Genius Bar reservations in China.
So is there an easy fix to this problem? It seems like there are two issues here. First, to what extent should Apple accommodate walk-in customers? Second, is there any easy fix to expanding Genius capacity? These are related. If capacity is expanded then the ease of getting a reservation should take care of the walk-in issue. On the other hand, if capacity cannot be easily expanded, then there is a question of how to allocate it between walk-ins and appointments.
If we think first of handling walk-ins with limited capacity, this sounds a lot like a doctor’s office balancing routine physicals with unexpected illnesses. Not surprisingly, much has been written about how to efficiently schedule a medical clinic. One proposal has been to implement “open access,” leaving much of the day unbooked so every patient can be handled right away. The phrase that one hears with open access is “do today’s work today.”
Of course, there is an important difference between an Apple store and a clinic. Most people would agree that a patient in severe discomfort should be shown some preference in getting served at a doctor’s office. It is not clear that everyone with walking in with a laptop on the fritz can claim a similar moral high ground. That is, the majority of the people queuing up with an “urgent” problem likely have the same issues as those with appointments. The appointment holders may have decided that can more easily accommodate a few days without a laptop than two hours hanging around the Apple Store. Said another way, those willing to walk in may simply be demonstrating that they don’t value their own time that highly.
Another issue with trying to run an open access system at the Apple Store is that it could be very costly. Open access essentially forces the service provider to expand its capacity when demand is high instead of forcing demand to spill over to future days. That means running overtime. While I suspect that some Geniuses would be happy to occasionally have a little OT, routinely having to work OT to clear the queue at the end of the night would get old fast. Genius turnover could be very costly even if Apple is OK with spending more on wages to clear queues.
An alternative approach some times used in clinical settings is to “carve out” spots in the schedule for urgent cases. At an extreme that might mean having hours that are explicitly meant for walk-ins. My kids’ pediatricians office has an hour first thing in the morning in which you can just bring your child in. This serves an obvious need for parents whose child gets ill at some point in the evening. Apple could do something similar by having some slots that are solely for walk ins and publicizing this well. There are, of course, pitfalls. For example, really the best time to have this is early in the morning. That way, any walk-ins that go unserved can be used to fill in for appointment holders who fail to show up. But if early means, say, 8:00 AM (my Apple store starts taking appointments at 9:00), then you may not have many takers and waste staff time.
So could Apple just expand capacity? Well, would you have guessed that there were already 120 Geniuses at one store? Merely adding more Geniuses at existing locations would help but at some point space, not bodies, is going to be the problem. And let’s face it, Regent Street (or Michigan Ave here in Chicago) is just an expensive place to provide tech support. That could mean that they just need more stores — possibly focused on a subset of products as the article suggests. That starts to sound expensive so we may have to accept long waits. After all, it is not like Motorola or Dell is offering a better experience.