Where old-fashioned customer service meets edgy technology

By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / December 20, 2009

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Together, they added some bright splashes of color to the ultramodern, glass-and-steel palette of the Apple Store in Boston’s Back Bay.

Judy Kales, a customer dressed almost entirely in purple as a “statement against winter,’’ was flanked by two Apple Inc. employees in festive red holiday T-shirts.

A computer was being purchased, but because this was an Apple Store, a lot of other stuff was going on, as well.

The Apple specialist to Kales’s right, Andrew Anderson, was preparing to “migrate’’ all of her programs and files from her old computer to the one she was buying. He would also be adding four or five new programs Kales would need to do the tasks she had been discussing with him. Meanwhile, the specialist on her left, Jon Sherman, was processing Kales’s purchase on his iPod Touch so she would not have to navigate a checkout line. By request, she would get her receipt by e-mail.

Kales appeared to be enjoying the entire experience. “They are always fabulous here,’’ she said.

Apple Stores, first launched in 2001 to considerable skep ticism in the retail industry, have turned out to be one of the company’s biggest success stories. In less than nine years, Apple’s retail operations have grown to 280 stores in 10 countries. For the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, the stores brought in $6.6 billion in revenue, adding $1.4 billion to Apple Inc.’s 2009 profit. During that time more than 170 million customers strolled through the stores, boosting the average single-store annual revenue to $26 million.

And the primary component of Apple’s winning formula, according to retail analysts: customer service.

“What’s most important about the Apple Stores is the support and the education,’’ said Michael Gartenberg, vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret LLC, a market research firm based in New York and Los Angeles. “That’s what people talk about when they talk about the Apple Stores: how they got their problems solved, how the employees made them happy.

“For years, Nordstrom was the gold standard for customer service,’’ Gartenberg added. “I think Apple has eclipsed it.’’

In an attempt to plumb the Apple Store’s reputation for service, the Globe earlier this week spent some weekday evening hours watching customer interactions. Apple Inc., known for the tight control it exerts over its brand, did not allow store personnel to be interviewed (“They are not spokespeople for Apple,’’ an actual Apple spokeswoman said.), but the company did permit a reporter and a photographer to roam freely through New England’s flagship store.

Kales was purchasing her “fifth or sixth’’ Apple computer on the store’s first floor. Significantly, she also purchased a “One to One’’ membership for $99, which entitles her to a year’s worth of enhanced customer service and training, including ongoing workshops and personal training sessions on the store’s third floor.

The Boston Apple Store, which opened in May of 2008, is one of 10 in Massachusetts. A boxy, three-story building with a sheer glass facade, it has the distinction of being the largest Apple Store in the United States. Climbing the sweeping, translucent spiral staircases at the center of the store on a winter evening were an impressive corps of Apple employees, easily identified by their red T-shirts and company lanyards.

On the first floor (primarily desktops and laptops) and the second floor (iPhones and iPods), the ratio of Apple employees to customers hovered around 1-to-5, as a dozen staffers circulated among a crowd that fluctuated between 20 and 30 on each floor. But on the top floor, which is all customer service and training, the percentage of employees increased dramatically. At large tables and long counters, Apple staffers huddled with customers one on one or in small groups. At the “Genius Bar’’ along the back wall, more than a dozen customers were consulting with Apple’s technical staffers.

Near the store’s front glass windows, three men were gathered around a large table, intently watching staffer Elias Bouquillon give a seminar on server software.

For Yoftahe Mulatu, it was his third training session of the day. Mulatu, a website designer, bought his Apple desktop less than a year ago. Like Kales, he also purchased the One to One membership. Now he visits the store nearly every week on his day off.

“This is an incredible resource for professional development,’’ he said. “It’s really paid off for me, long term.’’

A few minutes later, at the Genius Bar on the other side of the room, architect Dave Schatzle sat down for a session he was hoping would pay off short-term, as in immediately.

“It’s a long story,’’ Schatzle said as he presented his iPhone to Apple “genius’’ Nick Foh, “but let’s just say that a cup of coffee fell off a shelf and splashed all over it.’’

A faint constellation of tiny, brown speckles gleamed from inside the display. The main controller was no longer responsive, Schatzle said.

Foh took the unit to a backroom workshop.

“It’s in pretty bad shape on the inside,’’ he said when he returned a few minutes later.

That was the bad news. The good news was that the information on his coffee-crippled phone could be transferred to a new unit, and since the phone was less than 3 months old, the store would replace it at no charge.

Schatzle looked surprised and relieved.

“The iPhone is cool, but this is really cool,’’ he said, waving an arm in the direction of the Genius Bar.

“If this store wasn’t here,’’ Schatzle added, “then this iPhone wouldn’t be that good. When you think about it, it’s all one product.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at