Apple has started rolling out a major redesign of its retail stores in order to focus on software and switchers.
IfoAppleStore, which tracks the Apple retail operation almost as closely as Cupertino does, first noticed the switch. It's already underway at the downtown San Francisco Apple store, with signs placed near the front of the store designed to entice new converts to the Mac with slogans like "It's easy to love a Mac" that highlight the differences between Windows PCs and Macs.
Apple's retail operation is a very important part of its marketing strategy, beyond its role as a distribution channel. Apple executives have pointed out several times over the last couple of months that far more people visit an Apple Store in a given week then attend Macworld, and have noted on many earnings conference calls that roughly half the Macs sold in its retail stores are to new Mac users. But Apple is easing back on the pace of its retail expansion this year given the economic conditions, increasing the need to get more results from existing stores.
Over the past several months, the flagship stores like the downtown San Francisco one have tended to showcase the iPhone on the tables on the left side of the store near the entrance, and the newest Macs on the other side. But Apple has moved the iPhone table on the left side back a level in favor of a display table that highlights the Mac/iPhone setup, and organized the Mac table on the right side by new features in iLife '09 and iWork '09, such as the Garage Band artists lessons and new version of Keynote.
It's an interesting gambit; after all, why do people buy computers? With the Mac, Apple has traditionally focused on both hardware and software, emphasizing the hardware design aesthetic along with the benefits of Mac OS X.
But in the end--so long as the hardware works as designed--the software interface is where you form an attachment with a computer. It's where you spend your time working and playing, and is often the greatest source of pleasure or pain.
Apple has chosen this marketing strategy from the earliest days of the iPhone, spending more time showing off the features and capability of its software and emphasizing time and time again that it believes software is what will distinguish future mobile computers, not hardware. Recent iPhone ads highlight the App Store, attempting to sell both consumers and businesspeople on the variety of things you can do with an iPhone. Software has always been a huge part of the pitch for the Mac as well, but Apple appears to be shifting things more in that direction with the new store layout.
Apple is likely setting up to counter a significant marketing push expected from Microsoft around the Windows 7 launch, which will probably arrive before the end of the year. Apple has said it will release an updated version of Mac OS X this year, but has also said it expects that release to focus on improvements that won't jump out at the average user, such as improved support for multicore processors and new ways to tap into graphics processors.
Given that the early returns on the Windows 7 beta have been positive, Apple might have decided to prepare for the marketing blitz that will accompany such a launch by trying out a subtly tweaked pitch in the marketing laboratory that is its retail empire. This strategy would also make sense if Mac OS X Snow Leopard and new iMacs are the next major launches on Apple's to-do list, as many expect.
After all, hardware sells itself with just a glance. It takes a little more work to convince people to try new things.