The Arrogance of Success

Success, it seems, can be its own worst enemy. How else do you explain the meltdowns that so many people and businesses suffer after they have triumphed?

This train of thought was kick started by a visit to the Apple store in New York’s SoHo last Friday. Cards on the table: mine is an Apple household-the desktop, the laptop, the iPods, the wireless network are all products developed by the wizards of Cupertino. These are some of the neatest tools and toys ever made and any company that essentially gave me the tools to have my own radio station is going to be well liked in these quarters.

But lately, most notably with the launch of the iPad, the hype has gone over the top. Not just Apple, Steve Jobs personally transforms entire industries. I will grant you the music industry has been changed but the major labels, a la today’s title, were intent on killing themselves when the iPod arrived and they remain on life support, wedded to a model of moving hits with no staying power. But I digress.There is an equally valid story to be told about the iPhone.

Yet in personal computers Apple’s market share is still, I believe,  below 10% and despite my love of Keynote the other programs in the iWork package–Pages and Numbers–are weak, much weaker than MS Office. (And I’m a guy who still believes Lotus123 is, not was, is, a better program than Excel.) So let’s be clear–part of Apple’s hype is due to the fact that they maximize their successes and minimize their failures.

Retail is allegedly one of the industries Apple has transformed. I love retail. A day in the mall, to me, is sociological fieldwork. And I love it as a business. Hands down retail is the most challenging segment of business in large part because so many employees interact with or are one touch away from the customer. It’s a marketing and operations delight–an ever-changing lab of and lens into the mind of the consumer.

I’ve worked in retail, had retail clients and read anything I can put my hands on on the subject. There’s plenty I don’t know about retail but I know a fair deal. And maybe even a little more than the Cupertizards.

I ventured to SoHo to buy about $5000 worth of  iPads that needed to be shipped to various folks around the country. The helpful person on the 800# had told us the day before that the only way to conduct this transaction was in the store. The genius on site said they could only ship in state. A colloquy ensued in which the genius disappeared, presumably to consult with a super genius (Wile E. Coyote, I believe, works for Apple) and came back to explain to me why it was not possible to purchase at the store and ship out-of-state. It was a tortured explanation about sales and use tax.

The information was incomplete and, worse, wrong. If you intend to execute a multi-channel retail strategy, as Apple is doing, it’s a given that information should not change between channels. Deal with any of the Williams-Sonoma stores, Hanna Anderson or really any company operating a catalog, stores and a website and you’ll see this in action. Apple wasted my time by dragging me 35 blocks out of my way to their ‘environment.’ That’s not the issue, although it grates. The issue is that they (and if you wear a blue shirt with an Apple logo and the word genius on it you are part of they) think the way they are operating is correct.

Sears owns Lands’ End. In my local Sears store there is a Lands’ End boutique and a raft of computers to browse the full line and order what is not in the store. Sears has the same nexus problem (that’s the legal term for having an in-state presence that requires collecting sales tax) as Apple. They figured out a computer-based solution and they aren’t even a computer company.

Moreover, as long ago as the 1960s (and maybe earlier, this is from personal memory not research) you could walk into JC Penney and have an order shipped across the company. Sears has been pulling that trick off since the cataloger added stores. So it’s kind of hard to believe that Apple found some new legal restriction that only allows in-state shipment.

But that’s what happens when you reinvent categories–you throw the good out with the bad. I am hard-pressed to understand just what innovation Apple has brought to retail. Put the goods out where the customer can touch them? Marshall Field did that in the 19th century. Be a showcase for a single-brand product line? Auto dealerships, 1920s. Immerse your employees in the product line? CIrcuit City used to make ‘Sales Associates’ do weeks of product training before they ever set foot in the store back in the 1980s. Even that patented glass stairway can be seen in the mid-80s Alex Cox film Sid and Nancy (look for the scene in which Sid sings ‘My Way’).

What may revolutionary is dumbing down a word that we used to limit to minds’ like Einstein’s.

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One thought on “The Arrogance of Success

  1. Not to kick a Jobs when he’s down but this retail failure is bizarre and only minimized by Apple’s hype and cult-like following (you too!).

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