What can we learn from Apple about creating an excellent in-person experience at church?

What if I told you that the highest grossing per square foot retail store in the world only sells items in its stores that you can also buy online, get trained to use online, and receive full customer support online?

Despite this fact, people line up for hours to get into Apple retail locations. Apple doesn’t sell expensive jewelry like Tiffany’s or expensive clothes like Saks Fifth Ave, but still grosses close to $6,000 of revenue per square foot every year, more than any other retail outlet in the world, period. 

Since Apple developed its in-store retail concept, many others have tried their own version. However, none seem to be nearly as effective. Anytime you walk by an Apple retail location, it is swarming with people who are looking at computers, phones, ipads, and other merchandise. There is a buzz. People are having an experience. 

According to Bloomberg, 2017 was purported to be the year of the “retail apocalypse”, when nine of the largest retailers in the US declared bankruptcy. However, coming out of a hard year for brick and mortar retail, even pre-COVID, other retailers such as Nordstrom, Starbucks, and Apple saw a re-emergence of in-store sales as a result of adaptive models. What did these companies do in order to drive people back to their stores? Similar to what the church is processing now, the retailers who successfully made this transition figured out how to create a unique and exclusive experience in their physical stores that could not be replicated online. 

One of the questions that we are asking to increase our digital engagement is, “What can we do online that we cannot do in person?” However, if we are going to effectively and consistently get people back to church, we must also answer this question: 

“What can we do in person that we cannot do online?”

We cannot continue to simply copy and paste a worship service online and call it a digital experience. As Frank Blake, former CEO and Chairman of the Home Depot, said in our interview with him, in doing so we are “at best, commoditizing our worship experience, and at worst, we are training people in the irrelevance of going to church”. If there is no differentiated value proposition to coming into the building, people won’t. We’ve seen this trend in retail for years. As the church, we must find a way to celebrate both digital and physical engagement without one operating at the detriment of the other. What if there was a way, similar to Apple, Home Depot, and others, to do both? 

So what did Apple, the third largest online retailer in the world, do to become the #1 most profitable in-store retailer in the world? 

Apple shut down their stores. 

Apple made the decision that they would no longer refer to their locations as “stores”. If you do a search for Apple locations where I live in Atlanta on the Apple website, you will no longer see “Apple Store Buckhead” but just simply “Apple Buckhead”. Apple did this because they didn’t want anyone to think of their locations as a place where their objective was to sell you something. In fact, Apple trains its people to be just as ok if people don’t buy something, so that people never feel like they are there to be pushed into a sale. For Apple, it was about creating an experience, which is impossible to do if the employee providing that experience has any motive other than to serve the customer. 

Apple opened Town Centers

Apple replaced the idea of stores with operating town centers, where everyone is welcome and is asked to stay as long as they want. 

Apple has always placed value on the in-store experience. For years, you could get free training on your new device, visit the Genius Bar for issues, and always feel welcome. However, the move to the Town Center model was something very different. The leadership of Apple decided that the entire experience was about “enriching people’s lives”, or as Home Depot would call it, equipping people and creating community. Now, Apple offers coding classes for children. They provide community spaces for teams to meet. They have “Teaching Tuesdays” where they train teachers on how to better implement technology in their classrooms. The location is no longer about selling someone something when they need it. The location now is focused on creating experiences that make you want to come back. And what happens when people come back and see all the great products that Apple has to offer? They buy them. 

This statement from Angela Arhendts, SVP of Apple Retail, tells us a lot that we can learn about Apple to apply to our in-person experience: 

“The [Apple] store is now the biggest product we produce”. 

Everyone joined the Customer Service Team 

Apple also stopped referring to its employees as sales people. Now, every employee of Apple stores are referred to as Creative Pros, trained to focus on equipping people to better use the technology, answer customer questions, etc, and are even specifically trained to stay with a customer no matter how long the employee is needed, regardless of whether or not the customer buys something. They also removed commissions, which took away the incentive for someone to push a customer into a sale. 

If you walk into an Apple location, you will also notice that you cannot identify a single place to pay. This is intentional. Apple wants everyone to feel like they are there to learn, sample, try, and experience without even the most subtle hint of being asked for something in return. Apple recognizes that for someone to be effective at providing customer service, trust has to be established with the customer first. 

What can we take away as a church?

What if…. We stopped viewing our multi million dollar buildings as a place exclusively for Sunday morning church services, and instead began to see our buildings as a community space that happens to be used as a church on Sundays? 

What if… we actually gave people a reason to be on our church campuses during the week, regardless of whether or not they considered themselves to be members, or even Christians? 

What if…. Our lobbies became the most important place in the building, with a focus on equipping and connecting people, without feeling pushed out the door so the next herd of people can park and make it inside? 

What if… we changed our goal from seeing as many people as possible on Sunday to creating the most amazing experience possible for whomever shows up, regardless of how many people that is? 

When the church, ecclesiae, became synonymous with a building, aula ecclesiae, these buildings weren’t just IN the center of the town, they WERE the center of the town. The church hosted markets, town halls, meeting spaces, etc. As a result, the church became the most relevant building in a town, not just the most reverent building in a town. 

For us to focus on getting people back to Sunday morning worship, we have to change the win. Apple retail and churches alike want to reach as many people as possible. However, Apple teaches us that human experience and how we make people feel must not be compromised for the sake of numbers. Apple has demonstrated to us that this paradigm shift will drive more people to our churches than we’ve ever seen before.

As a team, our greatest joy is not to tell you things are changing, but actually jump into the mess of change with you. If this content resonates with you, or you have questions about how it might apply to you, we would love to connect!

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