Long before I visited the new "global flagship" Apple Store in San Francisco's Union Square, I was reasonably sure of some of the elements it would feature. Such as long tables displaying Apple devices, tasteful shelves of third-party products, an area for Geniuses to do their troubleshooting, and a glass staircase or two.
What I didn't know—and what struck me more than any other aspect of the store when I attended a press preview this morning—was that so many of the store's walls would be built out of glass that the scene outside would be part of the experience of being inside.
The new store opens on Saturday. Built on a spot formerly occupied by a Levi's store, it replaces the original San Francisco flagship, which opened in 2004 on Powell Street, a few blocks from the new location. That store (which closes on Friday) is above a subway station and across from a Forever 21, and the street outside has been undergoing a highly disruptive construction project for what seems like a century. There's no reason why you'd want to see any of that stuff when you're inside the place.
But the old store's replacement faces Union Square—which is both an urban park and San Francisco's prime district for serious shopping. Its backside looks out on what was formerly a rather grubby mini-park, which Apple has made over with a 40-foot green wall and a refurbishment and relocation of the 1970 fountain created by artist Ruth Asawa, and where it will host acoustic musical performances. (At one point, it wasn't clear whether Apple intended to retain the fountain, which now stands a better chance of being the landmark it deserves to be.) It's a nice neighborhood, and it's hard to tell where it ends and the retail establishment begins—especially since there are some trees inside the store.
Besides the standard doors sized for human beings to walk through, the new store also has enormous glass doors—movable walls, really—which Apple will be able to open on nice days. With them out of the way, the distinction between store and street should be even blurrier.
One of the best things about Apple Stores is that they usually manage to pull off a surprisingly low-key, civilized personality despite being so often mobbed with shoppers. Apple retail chief Angela Ahrendts, who talked about the new store at the preview, said that it works even harder to be welcoming. Getting a phone fixed, she said, can feel like a trip to the dentist. So instead of a Genius Bar, the new location has what she called a Genius Grove—a more open, high-profile space with greenery and plenty of seating. On the opposite side of the Grove, there's the Forum—a sizable chunk of the store devoted to education, with a giant screen, seating, and nothing else.
With its newest stores, Apple is also attempting to downplay products in boxes in favor of just letting them out of their packaging—the same approach it's always taken with displays of its own computers, phones, and tablets. So instead of the standard display of boxed-up iPhone cases on pegs, there's a wall of cases that almost looks like a design element at first. It turns out that you can remove any case from the wall, hold it in your hands, and pop it onto your own phone. And if you decide to buy a case, you can pull out a drawer behind it and retrieve a packaged one.
During her presentation, Ahrendts said that Apple's goal for the new store included making it a part of the community. "This is not just a store," she explained. "We want people to say 'Hey, meet me at Apple." It's tough to know what the environment will be like until the first surge of actual customers on Saturday. But it's already clear that the new store is a major upgrade—not only to Apple's presence in San Francisco, but to Union Square.
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photos: Harry McCracken;