The Temple of Apple?

I came home yesterday from a year abroad, and I’ve been spending the day getting re-adjusted to my hometown, Santa Monica. This morning I paid a visit to the Third Street Promenade, the main shopping pavilion in the city.

Walking along, I noticed that the old Apple store had closed down.  On the darkened storefront was a sign, informing me that the store had moved two blocks closer to the center of the promenade.

I kept walking, and two blocks later I arrived at the new Apple store. It was an impressive sight: a wall of glass stretching fifty feet high, with two rows of soothing, cedar tables stretching back nearly to their vanishing point. The walls were covered with the usual icons: photos of Apple’s products, screens alight with gorgeous images of nature, of culture, of smiling people. The inside, needless to say, was swarming.

Taking in the scene, I was struck by something. The entire spectacle–the building, the design, the activity–seemed to evoke a temple more than an actual store.  The “scripts” (routines of behavior) and “schemas” (clusters of images and associations)* that generally apply to stores and commerce didn’t seem to fit this scene. The scripts and schemas of temple, ritual, and religion seemed more appropriate.

In a “store,” customers come in with some intention, ranging anywhere from a general desire to browse the products to a specific desire to buy a product. The employee at the store is expected to welcome the customer and attempt to entice them to spend money–generally more money than they had intended to spend initially (otherwise the employee wouldn’t be adding much value to the store, would they?). They do this by way of persuasion of the value of new products, either through the quality of the products or their low price (by way of discounts and sales). Generally, the assumption is that the customer is unaware of the value of these products, and by thus informing them they might be enticed to buy. The actual purchase is a fairly unremarkable transaction, with the customer paying a cashier and going on their way.

At the Apple store, however, customers are assumed to be generally well-informed about the nature and value of the products being sold. The relatively small range of products and Apple’s remarkable advertising budget support this assumption. Further, the relatively large amount of space in-store devoted to displaying this small range of products is remarkable–possibly even unique (at least among technology retailers–but not, NB, among luxury retailers such as jewelry stores). 

Further, Apple is known for their inflexibility regarding prices; unlike other electronics manufacturers who suggest an MSRP (“Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price”) but let stores set their own prices and offer their own discounts as they see fit, Apple maintains tight control over the prices of their products. Prices across stores and the web are all remarkably standardized, and aside from Apple education discounts to university students, I can’t recall ever seeing an Apple item being sold at a discount… anywhere. Apple product pricing seems to be controlled at high levels in the company, which is unusual among retailers. The point of this is that a large component of the “store” scripts and schemas revolve around the customer securing the highest possible value; a component largely absent at the Apple store. This is highly interesting in that it suggests that Apple customers are generally price-insensitive, in that the price doesn’t really matter. They are there to be a part of Apple by buying a product and taking part in the community–and this “being part of Apple” is itself priceless. Further, this uncritical approach to price belies an uncritical approach to quality and value–something common, of course, to one indoctrinated into a religion.

Third, the design of the store itself is remarkably consistent across stores, with small variations in floor plan and design based on physical constraints. Upon entry, you see several helpful employees scattered between the warm cedar tables helping customers play with the latest Macbook, iPad, iPhone, or iPod. The products are arranged the same way, information is displayed the same way, and the same art decorates the walls. The effect of this is to create the feeling of a “universal” Apple store, and the sense that to step into an Apple store is not to step into a particular Apple store but rather to enter into an abstract and detached realm of Apple, a place to which all Apple “stores” are in fact only gateways. Compare this to, for example, a Best Buy (in which every store’s design is unique and must be decoded anew). There are other kinds of building that achieve this sort of consistency-within-constraints, of course: churches, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship.

Fourth, the purchase process itself is re-imagined as a nigh-ritualistic experience. From the high level of attention given by the Apple employees (the obvious mapping here is to a priesthood) to the elaborate and dramatic “unboxing” of the actual product, the acquisition of an Apple product has developed into a fairly self-contained experience–a secular(?) ritual.  Like all rituals, its purpose is to cause you to attach more weight and significance to the object than you otherwise might if going off of intrinsic value alone. An iPod by itself is a sleek music player, certainly, but an iPod that was lovingly and attentively selected for you, and which you unboxed slowly and lovingly over the course of an hour while you two gently got to know each other… well, that is a different kind of relationship entirely.

Fifth and finally, Apple’s organizational structure evokes that of a religious organization. A huge amount of control is held by a central authority (in this case, Apple HQ in Cupertino) under the direction of a charismatic leader (historically, Steve Jobs. I’ll grant that Tim Cook doesn’t seem to have the same “charismatic leader” characteristics, at least not right now). Information is highly controlled (I spoke once to a lawyer at Apple to revealed to me how little most employees were allowed to know–according to him, only Jobs knew how all the pieces fit together, and everyone else was operating on faith, in the dark). This central authority then creates smaller extensions to help extend its influence and conduct its work (Apple stores), with these extensions being severely limited in authority and autonomy.

These were my thoughts as I walked by the Apple store. I’m sure I’ve dramatized them somewhat, as I enjoy doing and sometimes indulge. Yet, I would be surprised if the impressions I’ve described are unique only to me–my guess is that others have walked past Apple stores and has similar thoughts. It’s good, I think, to hold these feelings up to the light.

*According to many psychologists and cognitive linguists (like George Lakoff, the professor at Berkeley who introduced me to these ideas), the scripts and schemas we acquire over our lives (especially early childhood) shape the way we understand, act, and make decisions in the world, as well as how we learn and understand new things. To say that an Apple store involves the scripts and schemas of a temple then, is to say that when people enter an Apple store, the same parts of their brain light up as when they enter a house of worship. The Apple store, as far as these people’s psychology is concerned, isn’t “like” a temple–it is a temple.

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