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Apple has made itself a retailing star

In computer giant’s stores, commercialism and community make tech icon a retailing star

Joe Pratolongo helped Ana Celidonio's set up her first iPad at the Apple Store on Boylston Street. (Brian Feulner for The Boston Globe) Joe Pratolongo helped Ana Celidonio's set up her first iPad at the Apple Store on Boylston Street.
By Michael B. Farrell
Globe Staff / March 25, 2012
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They came for new iPads. Others for a date with a Genius. Some were wide-eyed first-timers, many were well-known regulars.

Hundreds of people coursed through the Apple Store on Boylston Street on March 17 - one day after the computer-maker released its latest tablet - in a buzz of consumer euphoria that has helped the company create one of the world’s most profitable retail empires, which hit $14 billion in sales last year.

The Globe was given a rare inside look into how the Apple Store works, and how some of its 36,000 employees spread across 363 stores worldwide are helping to change shopping much as the iPod altered how people listen to music. The company’s stores have become more than just places to get gadgets. They’re destinations to meet like-minded techies, or pick the brains of Apple experts.

They’re part library, part community center, part coffee shop (without the coffee), and occasionally a concert hall for Mac-loving musicians. The Boylston Street store even hosted a fashion show recently. And experts say this blend of commercialism and community is influencing everything from the Disney Store to AT&T retail outlets.

“The stores are always thought of as public-private spaces,’’ said Gary Allen, creator of ifoAppleStore.com, a blog dedicated to Apple’s retail operation.

The Boylston store has 250 employees. They include the Geniuses who mind the Genius Bar, where customers bring busted products; Creatives who teach classes on using Apple gadgets and software; and Specialists filling the sales floor.

Each group plays roles originally conceived by Steve Jobs, the late Apple chief executive, and Ron Johnson, the company’s former retail chief who was later hired as chief executive of J.C. Penny Co. to bring Apple mojo to one of the country’s oldest brands.

The two created a showplace that was as meticulously designed as the computers they sold. The stone floors for every store come from the same Italian quarry, the maple tables are custom made to conceal cash drawers, and stainless steel wall panels are imported from Japan, said Allen.

That level of detail applies to customer service, too, choreographed down to the first time someone says, “Welcome to the Apple Store.’’

Apple borrowed many of its customer service guidelines from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., the luxury chain known for its attention to comfort and satisfaction of guests, according to Carmine Gallo, author of “The Apple Experience: Secrets to Building Insanely Great Customer Loyalty.’’ The philosophy is straightforward: If people are going to spend a lot of money, they want to be treated well.

And at Apple Stores, they spend. Last year, the stores generated sales of nearly $6,000 per square foot, the most of any retail chain and almost double that of next closest retailer, jeweler Tiffany & Co., according to industry analyst RetailSails.

At 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday, two young, perky blue-shirted Apple employees manned the entrance and greeted customers with “Welcome to the Apple Store.’’

On the third floor, Monico Molinar, 52, of Revere hunched over his MacBook Pro laptop, getting a refresher on the computer he bought about a year ago. Molinar is not just a longtime Boylston Street customer - he turns up at stores from London to Sydney. As a retired Delta Air Lines employee who gets free airfare, he travels frequently. “I almost don’t go to a city without checking in with the Apple Store as my home base,’’ he said.

Simon Lyn, 32, of Toronto was at the Boston store to pick up a case for his iPhone before continuing his St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Since celebrating was on his agenda, he wanted to ensure his phone was protected from a plunge to the floor or other mishaps.

Hilton Simmet, a 20-year-old sophomore at Harvard University, walked up to the Genius Bar and plunked down a power cord with broken insulation and frayed, exposed wires. It wasn’t a user error, he insisted, but some defect that led the cord to wear out prematurely.

Store Genius Tim Glynn looked it over. He hemmed and hawed about replacing the damaged cord for free. After a short lecture about cord maintenance, he gave Simmet the benefit of the doubt and a new power cord, which costs as much as $79.

On that Saturday, Geniuses were in high demand. They replaced an iPhone with two barely visible dots on the screen, tried to revive a laptop keyboard that had been bathed in water, and entertained a squirmy 2-year-old while Mom discussed her software glitch.

Apple Store employees don’t always start out as computer experts. The company would rather hire someone who is personable than particularly techie, said Gallo. “They would prefer to hire a former teacher than someone who knows everything about every program,’’ he said, because much of the experience is about walking first-time customers through products.

At the Boylston Store, they’ve hired not only teachers, but also artists, musicians, photographers, and even lawyers.

When Greg Lockhart isn’t working at the Apple Store, he has a second job leading bike tours around Boston.

And on this day, as sun poured into the third floor, Lockhart led a class on using the iPad as a travel tool.

Dressed in a green kilt and blue Apple shirt, Lockhart demonstrated his favorite travel apps - like Google Translate. He asked where to find a hamburger, and the app repeated his question in French.

Employees call this space the “family room,’’ since customers come back so often they feel like family. Assunta Cha, 71, has been back about eight times, learning about her iPad 2 or iPhone 4S.

She held her tablet close to her face, to see the apps Lockhart was describing, peering through red eyeglasses. She said she bought an iPad 2 to stay connected with her children and grandchildren.

“In order to communicate with them, we have to stay up to date,’’ she said.

Over the course of the day, employees connected with customers, browsers, and tourists, whether circling the store to test laptops, or parking themselves for one-on-one training. Some left with a new iPad, others with new knowledge. Some just left after checking their e-mail on one of the many computers.

Ultimately, though, such connections have helped create millions of advocates for the Apple brand, billions in sales, and long lines that form outside the stores when each new product is released.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.

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Employees at the Boylston store: 250 Average revenue per store in 2011: $43.3m Average store traffic per week: 22,000