I spent some time at the Apple Store in Tyson's Corner Virginia recently. We came in with a simple mission: secure some Nano gear for a 15-year-old. While I'm a huge Mac fan, I must say that our experience was surprisingly underwhelming... In fact, it was bad, folks. While it's possible that the problems we encountered are isolated to this store, there are some good lessons for anyone managing the retail merchandising experience.

First, when we entered the store, it wasn't clear where we need to go. We didn't see signs anywhere. As we wandered the crowded store and browsed the products at the tables, we realized that accessories must be somewhere else. We meandered into the center of the store, where several rows of chest-high shelving held computing accessories. The problem was, there were no signs to indicate whether the items on each shelf were for IPOD, Mini, Nano.... So we were forced to look hard and long for what we needed. It was very crowded and traffic spilled into our aisles from what we later discovered was the "Genius Bar."

The accessory shelves, which started at about chest height and continued to the floor, were very cumbersome to navigate. First, they were dark grey, if I remember correctly. This, combined with the bright lighting and the low angle of the merchandise, created shadows that made it hard to read packaging from a distance. Second, the aisle between the shelving units was perhaps three feet wide. This made the action of bending down to look at the lower shelves quite awkward: In the squat position, a customer would block the aisle, and customers bending over often bumped into each other. Frankly, it was more full contact than I usually like to have in my retail shopping experience.

Ultimately, we couldn't find what we really wanted, so we grabbed a charger and decided to check out and escape the crowded store. Checking out was harder than anticipated. We searched for the checkout area, assuming that the elevated Genius Bar was it. At first glance, it looked like a checkout line: The positioning made sense. It was a raised counter with computer screens and employees in front of them. There was a line leading up to the counter, and employees in front of computer screens were helping people. However, after getting in the line with and watching the activities taking place, we soon realized (along with several other people) that this was not the checkout line.

After another lap of the store, we found the checkout area, which was a low counter at the front of the store. We stood there with three other customers for what seemed like an eternity. One customer audibly complained about the store's disorganization, stating she would rather not visit the store again. The couple in back of us nodded in agreement.

As we waited in line, I suddenly noticed the signs meant to label the various "zones" around the store—they were hanging in a tabular format from the ceiling. These were awkwardly above a normal line-of-sight for a store visitor. As I pointed this out to my friend, I observed that, from a design perspective, they also blended in with the ceiling, which made them almost indistinguishable. The woman next to me listened in and voiced adamant agreement with my comment. This was when I decided I had to write about this subject.

Collectively, my Apple Store experience really surprised me. I am a HUGE fan of Apple and was a loyal Mac user for more than a decade, and continue today to be a devoted IPOD user. I love the creativity embodied by Apple, the history of innovation, dedication to clean, ergonomic design and experience. However, we all learn from trial and error, and there are some real experience challenges here that I do hope Apple will carefully consider.

Wayfinding and Visual Cues

Clean lines are a hallmark of every Apple store... and the low shelves at center help maintain line-of-sight to the back of the store, where multimedia presentations, Pro Workshops and Unplugged events are offered. The problem is that despite the clean-design concept, navigating the store is difficult and annoying.

I'd wager that the lack of intuitive navigation inside this brick and mortar store results in a preference for individuals to shop at stores like Best Buy or Target (ironic, since I believe the head of Apple's retail division hails from Target...). Merchandising at these stores is, for the most part, superior: All products are in easy eye and arm reach. It's easy for customers to find what they need quickly, without asking for help.

In the Apple store, it was not only difficult to get help, but the only sign that is NOT white-on-white in the store's white and grey color schema is the Exit sign above the door. I find it ironic that the only clear direction to be found was THE WAY OUT. The signage that is meant to be helpful is placed out of the customer's line-of-sight and is not easily distinguishable; else, it is missing entirely.

There are some easy fixes for the problems at the Tysons Apple Store:

  • Make each station more easily identifiable. This can be accomplished through improved signage (placement, design) and reinforced by more intuitive wall visuals. Place signs within the average visitor's line-of-sight and use colors that easily stand out against the background color scheme. Add labels to accessory shelving to make the browsing process more intuitive and easy.

  • Place potentially congested areas at a comfortable distance from other congested areas (in this case, the Accessories area and the Genius Bar). This will reduce confusion and help customers browse comfortably, without the added congestion of the adjacent area.

  • Offer visitors a little "storientation." At a minimal level, post an employee at the front to greet and direct customers. Depending on the unique needs (size, layout) of each store, offering informational cards, kiosks and simple layout signs may be helpful, as well.


Beyond not understanding where to go, it's important not to throw barriers up that prevent customers from getting what they want quickly and efficiently. The roadblocks we encountered weren't just presented by the wayfinding challenges described above, it was positively "clunky" to get a basic product and check out. An online store with the same problem would have a higher shopping cart abandonment rate... and we can assume brick and mortar stores are no different. In frustration, my friend and I almost left without making a purchase.

In keeping with time-tested best practices, customers shouldn't have to "work" to locate or examine merchandise. The easy fixes:

  • Place products within comfortable reaching distance, preferably within a reasonably natural line of sight and arm's reach. For example, it would be relatively easy to use taller or elevated accessory shelves and angle them in the floorplan to create the center-aisle line-of-sight into the back of the room without negatively impacting the clean store design or real estate usage.

  • Get people in and out more easily. Beyond storientation, it was really a pain to check out in this store. The checkout line was also serving as a customer service department (returns, IPOD service). The irritated people in line mostly had simple transactions to conduct and were forced to wait in excess of 15 minutes while faulty IPODs were replaced and special orders were created. Address long lines immediately to support both simple and complex transactions.

Collectively, this mini case study illustrates how important it is to continue to test and iterate the customer experience to improve outcomes and remove the pitfalls that impact customer loyalty. In the future, as I peruse the malls and stores, I'll definitely compare these observations to other Apple stores, as I'm curious about the continuity of experience between them. That's all for today, though.

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image of Leigh Duncan-Durst
Leigh Duncan Durst (leigh at livepath dot net) is a 20-year veteran of marketing, e-commerce, and business and the founder of Live Path (www.livepath.net).