In almost every scenario, I prefer shopping online to buying things in person. Zara is my own personal hellscape, and I have been known to go many days without bare necessities while I wait for them to arrive in a box at my doorstep in favor of picking them up at the drugstore down the street. But there is one giant, fruit-emblazoned exception to this rule — and that is the Apple Store. I love going to the Apple Store.
Every time I cross the threshold of the Apple Store's glass walls, I want to buy everything in sight — and I want redesign my apartment. The customer service is great, and while you wait for a literal Genius to help you, you can try out new Beats, test out the crunch on the new Macbook Air's keys, or even doodle with an Apple Pencil.
But in addition to its pristine layout and many tech toys, what also differentiates the Apple Store from the brick and mortar herd is its unique experiential element. Since 2017, Apple Stores worldwide have offered free classes as part of the in-store programming called Today at Apple, and now, Apple is launching 58 new sessions to teach customers everything from sketching architecture to app prototyping — and you don't have to own the latest Apple products to participate. Last week, I flew to Cupertino, to Apple's new campus at Apple Park, where I demoed some of these new classes.
Apple Park is like one giant glass space shuttle, a mothership of sorts to its over 500 offshoot stores worldwide, where every surface is the pristine white of an AirPod case and even the trash cans manage to be sleek. (I spent a few very long minutes trying to throw out a paper plate, until, clearly sensing my confusion, a very kind employee showed me that the trash can slides out from the wall. An efficient use of space!)
Before trying out the new sessions, I sat down in a small room in a wing of Apple Park with Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice President, Apple Retail, and Karl Heiselman, Senior Director, who talked about the inspiration behind these new classes — and how the two envision the evolution of Apple's retail experience.
Key to understanding the Apple Store's intersection of commerce and experience is understanding how Apple sees the role of its stores to begin with. As Ahrendts explained, "We always say the Apple Watch is Apple’s littlest product, and the retail store is Apple’s biggest product. There’s the hardware — the architecture — and then what happens inside of the store is the software, which we call Today at Apple. "
After Today at Apple's initial launch and a series of subsequent qualitative surveys, Ahrendts and her team saw a hunger for learning in their customers, and sought to create more in-store opportunity that would enrich lives — one of Steve Jobs's main credos — by providing more classes that "encourage connection, inspire new learning, and unlock creative thinking." And thus, 58 new free classes were born, which can be grouped into three formats: skills, walks, and labs. I took a class in each category, at Apple Park's very own Visitor Center store.
My first class of the day was called Music Skills: Drum Patterns with GarageBand. The skill sessions are the most basic of the three formats and are intended for those who want to learn how to better use a certain Apple product or software. I learned how to make drum beats using GarageBand on the iPad. I have to admit: I was, uh, nervous for this class. The only thing worse than my musical ability is my fear of public speaking, and I had to conquer both head on in the span of 30 minutes. But I made a beat! And it was not bad! I presented it to my group, and they applauded, so maybe I should be a DJ now? Also, clearly I have GarageBand to thank for empowering every guy I've ever dated who "makes beats on the side." Thanks to Today at Apple, I now know that this is a skill anyone can acquire.
Next came an Art Walk called Discovering Color. Today at Apple's walks, the most popular session type, are about encouraging people to connect with one another in the communities around each store. They include photo walks, sketch walks, music walks, health and fitness walks, and video walks, where participants leave the store led by a Creative Pro and use an Apple product to engage with their surroundings. After a brief lesson in how to take photos on an iPad and extract colors from our photos using Procreate, we walked about the Visitor Center, taking photos of the tree-lined courtyard and the wood slats of the balcony overhang with the sky peeking through behind. I extracted some nice blues for my color wheel, and then I made a painting of purple-y blue strokes in various shades, which I am owning as "abstract art." And, not to toot my own horn or anything, but it was really good. Like, the Creative Pro asked if I could present it to the group and talk about my inspiration.
"You can't take a walk on the internet," Heiselman said when explaining the walk format, and, in a world where social media rules all and an Emoji smile is commensurate with the real thing, some people might need reminding of this fact.
To round out the afternoon, I participated in a Video Lab called Small Screen Magic, which was co-created with YouTube star and video creator Zach King. The 90-minute lab format is the most advanced, and focuses on a creative process from a musician or artist, like Florence Welch and Swizz Beatz. In an hour and a half, we learned how to execute Zach King's signature jump cut video-editing technique using the Clips app — which can be used to make a subject seemingly travel in time, disappear, or, in my team's case, swap places with another person. I volunteered to be an actor, and then, thanks to some easy-to-learn movie magic, I clapped my hands and immediately transformed into a guy. I think I have found a new pastime, and it might involve doing jump cut edits with my dog.
We then watched all of the videos on a large video screen at the center of the store – a feature that Apple will be incorporating into all of its Stores worldwide in order to better integrate and facilitate these new sessions. The central forum in every store will be surrounded by seating to serve as a space for fostering community and collaboration, and some stores already have these new features.
For Ahrendts, it all comes back to what Steve Jobs once said about tech's role in the world: “Technology alone is not enough. It's technology when married with the liberal arts that impacts humanity and makes our hearts sing.”
They are words that inspired Ahrendts long before her time at Apple, and now guide her and her team as they look to the future of Apple Retail: "We have the technology, we’re unlocking the liberal arts, and yes, I hope we impact humanity and make peoples' hearts sing."
Apple paid for the hotel stay and airfare as part of a press trip the writer of this story attended. However, Apple did not approve or review this story.