Apple stores: For show or sales?

Apple stores: For show or sales?

Apple's decision to cater to Watch buyers with reservation-only sales and in-store appointments worried one retail analys.

Apple's decision to cater to Watch buyers with reservation-only sales and personalized in-store appointments worried one retail analyst, who wondered whether it signals a sea change in how the Cupertino, Calif. company leverages its nearly 450 outlets.

"One concern I'd have as a retail person is that this could end up turning [Apple's] stores into more of a showroom and less of a place to buy stuff," said Stephen Baker, an analyst with the NPD Group who specializes in technology retailing.

"If the Watch has volume at some point, and as they put more people on [selling the Watch], it could result in less traffic in the store," Baker said, referring to customers after other Apple products.

Baker was reacting to reports that in-store purchases of the Apple Watch will require a previously-reserved online order and an associated 15-minute time slot. During the quarter hour, Apple will walk the buyer through the wearable's functionality and insure that the Watch size -- it comes in two models, one 38mm wide, the other 42mm -- is appropriate and that the band fits properly.

"Choose your Apple Watch online and make a reservation to buy it at an Apple Store," Apple currently states on its website. "We'll have it waiting for you when you arrive."

Apple will start taking pre-orders Friday, and will begin selling the Watch on April 24.

Baker stressed that the reports of Apple's in-store Watch purchasing scheme were unconfirmed, and that it's unclear whether the process would continue indefinitely. But he was uneasy about the implications if Apple does continue the practice.

His biggest questions were whether Apple's attention would be focused on the Watch sales model to the detriment of customers looking to purchase non-Watch products, and more importantly, whether the Watch signals a shift in Apple's retail strategy.

"Will Apple continue down this road of a one-on-one selling experience?" Baker asked. "This is something that bears watching, at least in the U.S."

The bulk of Apple's stores are in the United States.

To some extent, Apple's stores already act as showrooms, Baker said, with more sales in the U.S. rung up at other retailers. iPads, he said, are predominantly sold at non-Apple retailers, in large part because of the aggressive discounting they do on the harder-to-move tablets. And more iPhones are sold at U.S. mobile carrier outlets than at Apple's own storefronts.

Macs, too, are sold in large numbers by partners, something Apple wants to expand even further. "Costco will get MacBooks, so it's clear that Apple is also after more distribution channels for Macs," Baker said.

"If [Apple's intent] is to shift toward a more one-on-one selling atmosphere in its stores, that doesn't match the mass-market, high-volume locations of its stores now," Baker added.

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Tags business issuesAppleNPD GroupApple watchretail IT

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