What it is: Back in 1996, Apple toyed with the idea of creating an Apple Cafe for people to visit.
In 1996, most people bought and used a Windows PC. Not because Windows was a necessarily a great operating system but because it was the best option available. Linux was freely available but was still too hard for most people to use and install. Even worse, Linux lacked the software library that Windows offered.
Even the Macintosh was mostly neglected during this time. After all, why buy a Macintosh for more money when you could get a better Windows PC that was more compatible with hardware and software? for that reason, most stories that sold computers focused on selling Windows PCs. If they sold the macintosh, they often had the Macintosh in a neglected corner.
That’s why Apple flirted with the idea of an Apple Cafe, which later got focused into the Apple Store. The original idea of the Apple Store was to sell Apple products such as the Macintosh and later the iPod. The huge problem with the Macintosh was that few places sold them because they found it easier to sell Windows PCs instead. So by opening their own stores, Apple could focus on providing a better buying experience for the Macintosh than people could get from other computer stores.
The Apple Cafe concept took this one step further and envisioned a restaurant as well. The idea was to make the Apple Cafe a destination in itself where Apple products just happened to be sold. While this concept likely would have flopped, it did plant the seeds for the Apple Store to come.
Initially critics claimed the Apple Store would flop. After all, Gateway Computers had opened multiple stores and failed. The big difference between the Apple Store and the Gateway Computer stores was that Gateway’s stores were nothing more than a showroom for their computers. If you liked their computers, you couldn’t buy one there. You had to order it online.
The Apple Store was different. You could try out various Apple products for as long as you wanted. Then you could buy the one you wanted right there and walk out the door with it. If you needed help, you could go to the Apple Store and visit a Genius Bar. Apple Stores not only sold products, but they supported them in a friendly environment.
Microsoft has tried to duplicate the Apple Store with their Microsoft Stores, but there’s a huge difference. Microsoft makes most of their money in the enterprise market while Apple makes most of their money in the consumer market. That’s why Apple Stores appeal to shoppers because they want help with their iPhone or Macintosh. That’s also why Microsoft Stores don’t appeal to individuals because most people can buy a Windows PC from any store so there’s little reason to go to a Microsoft Store.
If you need help, you can take a Windows PC to Best Buy, a Microsoft Store, or any smaller third-party repair shops. Windows PCs have plenty of third-party support so a Microsoft Store isn’t necessary. For the longest time, Apple products lacked such a third-party support network, so Apple had to create the Apple Stores to fill this unmet need.
Today, Apple Stores are still a place for individuals to try out various products and get help using and fixing their devices. There are some third-party support stores that offer similar help and support, but when most people think of getting help, they think of an Apple Store first. With a Windows PC when most people need help, they rarely think of a Microsoft Store first if at all.
While the Microsoft Store looks like an Apple Store, it’s not succeeding nearly as well. Microsoft is most likely losing money keeping their stores open since it’s hard to earn enough revenue selling Windows PCs that people can easily buy somewhere else, especially after decades of doing just that every time they needed a Windows PC.
Apple Stores filled a need and now they’re dominant. Microsoft Stores never filled a need so they’re far less successful.
The brilliance of the Apple Store wasn’t the store itself but in filling an unmet need, which was making the experience of shopping and buying an apple product easy and convenient. Third-party Apple stores have mostly withered away but there weren’t many to begin with. Apple Stores succeed because of the poor conditions surrounding the experience of buying Apple products.
Sot he lesson is clear. Just copying the physical layout of an Apple Store won’t magically bring success, which is what the Microsoft Stores are trying to do. The real secret of the Apple Store is filling an unmet need. In the case of Apple, most stores did a horrible to non-existent job of selling Apple products. In the case of Microsoft, most stores did a decent job selling Windows PCs and accessories, so Microsoft Stores were never necessary in the first place while Apple Stores were.
If you want to study the success of the Apple Stores, it has little to do with the physical appearance although that helps make apple Stores distinctive. The real success of the Apple Stores is filling an unmet need. Whether the original 1996 Apple Cafe concept would have succeeded or not is debatable, but offering food and drinks in an Apple Cafe would likely have distracted people instead.
Nobody goes to an Apple Store today and wants a sandwich and a drink. Yet the concept of the Apple Cafe led to the Apple Store. Success comes to those who fill an unmet need and stay focused. The Apple Stores do that while the Apple Cafe concept does not.
There’s a thin line between success and failure. As Microsoft discovered, just copying the Apple Store idea is not enough. You must also fill an unmet need and that’s why the Apple Store is still a success after all these years and the Microsoft Store is not.