Former retail chief: Only 1 in 100 Apple store visitors actually buys

In an interview at Stanford, Ron Johnson explains that Apple stores aren't places to sell. They are places to be.

Chris Matyszczyk
2 min read

Ron Johnson Stanford Graduate School of Business/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

People in retail often think ugly.

Many believe that every square foot should represent a certain revenue number. Many think that the more stuff you have in the store, the more people will buy.

Apple, though, is one company that turned heads in its peculiar attitude to retailing. Here were these places that not only looked nice, but weren't actually filled to the gills with stuff. Here were these places that seemed like strange palaces and meeting spaces, placed in malls whose stores seemed increasingly empty.

In an interview at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, former Apple retail chief Ron Johnson explained that physical retail was so much more about an experience than a crude sales channel.

"The Apple store's a place to be," Johnson said. Not a place to shop, a place to be.

He also offered one bracing statistic (around the 38-minute mark): "Only 1 out of the 100 who visit the store every day buy anything."

He then put forward this conundrum: "But it's the busiest store in the mall."

What are the other 99 doing? Bathing in the connection between themselves and the brand. In the future, he said, stores will be forced to create more intimacy through their physical stores.

The ubiquity of technology has meant that people feel more connected to each other -- although one can debate how real these connections are.

A physical store's future will lie in enhancing that feeling of personalized intimacy. "The Apple store is, in many ways, a precursor of where things might go," Johnson said.

To some, this is merely another example of the blind cultishness of sheep. But there's an enormous difference between a brand that enjoys an emotional commitment and one that people can take or leave.

In the latter case, the leaving is very easy. In the former, Apple has found more and more ways to dull the impulse to depart. Whether it's the stores, the ease of use of the products, or the ecosystem, there's always something to draw you in.

Johnson left Apple to become CEO of J.C. Penney. This was not a happy time. When asked why he thought he'd failed, he was quite disarming in his honesty: "Arrogance."

No, there was no discussion here about whether he learned that from Steve Jobs. Indeed, in an earlier section of the interview, when asked about Jobs, Johnson described him as private and a great delegator.