Apple's Retail Guru Tapped for Tesla Showrooms

Apple Store Fifth Avenue New York

Obvious differences in product offerings aside, Apple and Tesla Motors have a lot in common. They're both quirky, trendy,and often misunderstood. Apple, however, has managed to transform from a scrappy startup to a multi-billion dollar company, and Tesla is still struggling. Lucky for Tesla, then, that it snagged George Blankenship as its vice president of design and store development. Blankenship previously spent nine years working with Apple to amp up its retail strategy. Before that, he opened hundreds of stores each year for the GAP.

Blankenship is charged with helping Tesla expand from its network of 13 showrooms to 20 by the end of the year—and even more beyond that. While Blankenship has never before worked in the auto industry, he sees lots of similarities between his work in clothing and computing and his current position at Tesla. "This is about technology, innovation, and a great pipeline of products that need to be explained to the customer," he tells FastCompany.com. "It's just like when I was at Apple."

While at Apple, Blankenship managed to move Apple products from the back of big box retailers to prominent locations in retail-oriented areas. "We went to where people were already frequenting, where they were out to eat, where they went shopping. That's where we positioned Apple stores—right in front of customers. Then we could tell them the story."

The retail guru wants to do the same thing for Tesla. Whereas traditional auto dealerships are often in mammoth buildings that are set apart from retail districts, Blankenship hopes to put Tesla showrooms right in the thick of popular shopping locations.

But Tesla has a unique challenge: While consumers weren't that excited about Apple when Blankenship came on board, Tesla practically has more hype than it can handle. The challenge is to make potential customers understand what Tesla is about. And that requires a comprehensive customer experience strategy.

"We want to figure out the best, most comfortable way to create an environment where people aren't just looking at the car—they see how it's part of their future," Blankenship says. It won't be easy.

Tesla only has one commercially available vehicle (the Roadster), and the Model S sedan—Tesla's more affordable option— won't go on sale until 2012. Apple may not have always been universally liked, but it could at least claim to have more than two products on the market.

"I don't know that it's going to be easier [than with Apple] but what I do know is that I'm being greeted with open arms everywhere," Blankenship says. "I think people are really excited."

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.