After five years at Apple, senior VP of retail Angela Ahrendts is leaving the company in April. Apple announced the news in a statement that called her tenure “successful” and said she was leaving for “new personal and professional pursuits,” without addressing the details of why the former CEO of Burberry was leaving and what she might be planning to do next.
Replacing Ahrendts is Deidre O’Brien, Apple’s VP of People and an executive with more than 30 years of experience at the company. Her new title will be senior VP of retail + people, reflecting the fact that she will continue to oversee Apple’s HR operations while adding retail to her portfolio. It’s an unusual move—both HR and retail are gigantic responsibilities, and Apple retail has never been run by someone without an extensive background as a merchant. But Apple’s retail workforce of 70,000 is an army of employees unto itself. It’s also a critical slice of the company that represents it to the public in a direct way that a software engineer or chip designer does not.
From the outside, at least, Ahrendts’ time as Apple’s retail honcho has been impressive. She hasn’t messed with aspects of the shopping experience that were already working and has opened even nicer stores with additional training sessions and other events such as Teacher Tuesdays. The rollout of the Apple Watch—a product that required more explaining than a Mac, iPhone, or iPad, as well as new in-store fixtures—also happened during her tenure.
Ahrendts had the challenge of replacing John Browett, the former CEO of a chain of Dixons, a British electronics stores whom CEO Tim Cook hired to replace founding Apple Store chief Ron Johnson when he left to run JCPenney. Browett seemed like an odd choice in the first place—his former employer was an uninspiring chain more akin to CompUSA than the Apple Store—and spent only 10 months in the job before being asked to leave, reportedly after instituting ill-advised cost-cutting measures.
The retail chops Ahrendts developed while working in luxury fashion turned out to be eminently transferable to selling consumer electronics. If all O’Brien does is continue in the direction Ahrendts has set for Apple’s stores—and its online store—she might do quite well. But I do wonder: What happens if the time comes when Apple must change course to ensure that its storefronts remain a mind-blowingly triumphant success in what has been a hardscrabble century, so far, for the retail business?