Apple thinks different with new San Francisco store

The venue in Union Square is the first store in the world to feature Apple's new design plans, including a "Genius Grove."

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
4 min read
Josh Miller/CNET

Apple this week took the wraps off its newest store in San Francisco, or, to be more precise, slid open its huge glass doors.

Two sides of the building feature massive sliding glass doors, with those in the front reaching 42 feet high and opening a space 40 feet wide. They make visitors feel like they're out in San Francisco's mild climate instead of inside a retail store. Or, at least that's what Apple's going for. It wants you to feel like you're in a town square, not just an Apple store, said Angela Ahrendts, the company's head of retail.

Apple's latest SF store showcases chain's new design direction (pictures)

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"This is not just a store," Ahrendts said Thursday during a sneak peek for reporters at the store, the first in the world to feature the company's new retail design. "We want people to say, 'Meet me at Apple, did you see what's going on at Apple?'"

Thursday's press preview came on the 15th anniversary of the opening of Apple's first retail stores. The company largely defined what a modern electronics-buying experience should look and feel like. But some say the novelty has worn off, with Samsung and Microsoft successfully mimicking part of Apple's retail feel.


Apple has replaced the Genius Bar with a "Genius Grove" that's more relaxing and has a lot more seating for people needing help using their devices.

Shara Tibken/CNET

The company has tasked Ahrendts, the former Burberry CEO who became head of the company's online and in-store sales in 2014, to turn things around in retail, as well as figure out how to sell the Apple Watch, the company's "most personal device yet." Apple a year ago also promoted Jony Ive to the newly created position of chief design officer to give him more oversight over projects like retail store redesigns.

Watch this: Take a tour of Apple's redesigned store

"We have reimagined what the future of Apple retail will be," she said. "We have said that we will know we've done really great if it feels more like a town square."

A different town hall

The new shop is in San Francisco's Union Square area, alongside high-end retailers like Tiffany & Co., Williams Sonoma and Saks Fifth Avenue. It's also just three blocks away from an older Apple store in downtown, which will close permanently at 9 p.m. PT on Friday. The new store, at 300 Post Street, opens to the public at 10 a.m. PT on Saturday.


The new Apple store in San Francisco's Union Square features two 42-foot-high sliding glass doors. (They're closed in this photo.)

Shara Tibken/CNET

The store takes over a space previously occupied by jeans retailer Levi's. It's about 45 percent larger than the San Francisco store it's replacing and has room for more employees. It also includes a plaza where Apple plans to host acoustic music acts during the first week the store is open and every weekend (at least when the weather's nice).

The building was designed by architect Norman Foster's firm, Foster + Partners, which also created Apple's new Westlake store in Hangzhou, China, and Apple's new California headquarters dubbed the "Spaceship."

Notably, the store is one of the first in the world to open since design chief Ive started overseeing Apple's retail store designs. It's also the very first in the world to include Apple's five new store design elements, Ahrendts said.


Angela Ahrendts, Apple's head of retail, shows off one feature of Apple's new store design -- the "boardroom." This is where the store's business team can give hands-on advice and training to entrepreneurs, developers and small and medium businesses.

Shara Tibken/CNET

Those include an "avenue," with long tables and little shops to make you feel like you're in a town square. "Creative Pros" with expertise in areas like Apple Music will hang out in the areas to talk with customers. There's also a "boardroom" for the store's business team to help entrepreneurs and small and medium businesses learn about Apple products, a new "Genius Grove" that replaces the Genius Bar, and a "forum" with a 6K video wall and seating to hold classes about photography and other sessions. The back outdoor plaza is open 24 hours a day and has free Wi-Fi.

"It's a much-updated design of Apple's traditional open approach to retail," Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin said.

Open and bright

Apple tested some of the five new features in about 17 other stores around the world, BJ Siegel, senior director of design for Apple real estate and development, told CNET. The San Francisco Union Square store is the first to include all of them.


The ceiling of the first floor is attached to the back wall and is shaped like a wedge, wide at the back wall and thin as it stretches to the front entrance. The first floor of the Apple store is where you can buy devices and get information from "Creative Pros."

Shara Tibken/CNET

Stainless steel walls line two sides of the building (inside and out), and two glass staircases give visitors access to the top floor. The cantilever floor of the second story is narrow at one side and widens as it attaches to the back wall, sort of like a wedge-shaped diving board. The ceiling of the first floor features hundreds of thousands of LEDs covered by cloth panels that make the room feel bright and airy.

White terrazzo floors (similar to what will be in Apple's new campus when it opens, Siegel said) also give the room a brighter feel. The store is completely powered by renewable energy through solar panels on the roof.

The large glass doors at the front of the store take 10 minutes to open, Siegel said and they weigh 37,000 pounds apiece. "They're some of the largest glass doors in the world," he said. Ultimately, all design elements are meant give you the sense you're not stuck in an electronics shop but are part of the environment around the store.

"The connection to inside and out is one of the things most important to us," Siegel said.


Apple's store features two glass staircases to get to the second floor.

Josh Miller/CNET

When seeking approval for the store's design in 2014, Apple's development director in charge of the project said the store would be "the flagship for Apple" and would be "more iconic than the glass cube" on New York's Fifth Avenue, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Apple stopped detailing retail sales in its quarterly earnings reports in fiscal 2015, making it difficult to gauge how its stores are doing. But results from prior years showed a slowing trend. In Apple's fiscal 2014, which ended September 27, 2014, retail sales rose only 6 percent to $21.46 billion, on par with the 7 percent rise in 2013. Both are much lower growth rates than the 33 percent increase seen in 2012, 44 percent in 2011, and 47 percent in 2010. And the weakness came despite Apple opening more stores.

Updated at 1 p.m. PTwith quotes, additional information and photos.