An Unbelievably Awesome Retail Experience

I don’t say this very often but buying at the Apple Store tonight was an amazing experience. I had the new Apple Store (version 2.0) app on my iPhone and needed to buy an external DVD/CD player. I grabbed one off the shelf and pulled up the app. It immediately recognized that I was in an Apple retail store and brought up a bar code scanner. I centered it on the barcode and, ching, it registered the product without me hitting a button. I hit check out, it asked for my iTunes password, and showed me the final receipt. It also emailed it to me.

I didn’t have to wait for someone to check me out, I didn’t have to pull out a credit card and repeat all my info painstakingly slowly to an Apple sales person. I was literally in and out of the store in under 2 minutes.

I hate shopping. I hate the lines and the crowds. But this was an experience I won’t mind repeating. Great job, Apple! Now… get every other retail store on this system, too.

81 thoughts on “An Unbelievably Awesome Retail Experience

    • Agreed. He only THINKS his shopping was easy.

      We all know Apple doesn’t REALLY make anything easy. They’re widely-known strength is just illusion!

      In reality, he had to pay in pennies, picked up one at a time in his teeth. Underwater. Blindfolded.

      Keep fighting the good anti-Apple fight! The truth is out there!

  1. Big question is how they’re preventing theft (there’s a reason Apple employees call this feature: EasyTheft).

    I’m sure they have something in place we don’t know about… it will be interesting to see how this scales.

    • My guess is they will set up a simple Costco-like bottleneck at the door on the way out. Show a receipt and go. But nothing this time. Getting out of the store without showing a receipt might just be a case of working out the kinks in the process.

    • You never hear about OSX piracy yet there’s no DRM on any Apple software. They trust their customers enough to give them the benefit of the doubt. This creates loyalty and people keep coming back knowing they won’t be hassled. Besides, I think they can recoup the costs of a couple of stolen headphones as they keep the important stuff (iPads, Macs etc) behind closed doors. I’m also sure the staff will be trained to spot peculiar goings on as this becomes more popular.

      • You never hear about OS X piracy because you’re not looking. Google for [popular OS X app] + serials. There are cheapskate OS X users just as there are cheapskate Windows users. And incidentally, all software bought from the Mac App Store has DRM.

      • I worked in retail in college. We were not allowed to stop a customer we thought was stealing. The theft meant less than the possible lawsuit, I guess. Maybe that is different in different states or different by company.

        I do know that early on I had to make a trust/no trust decision with my customers. I could’ve spent a lot of time policing the web, looking for customers trying to rip me off, etc. Instead I made a trust decision. So far it has paid off in spades. The .1% or whatever that are willing to rip me off would have done it anyway and I have a much better relationship with my customers and much stronger loyalty because I decided to trust them.

        Maybe Apple is testing the theft loss and seeing how much it increases. My guess is it doesn’t. It was quite easy before to walk into an Apple Store and take something off the shelf and walk out. I’m not certain that changes. Honest people like me will still be honest.

      • @MattJeffryes Ryan was obviously talking specifically about Apple software, not software piracy in general on OSX.

  2. Do Apple stores have those “sensor pillars” you walk through at the door? I don’t know what they’re called, but they’re the things that sound an alarm if you try to walk out with a tag on a piece of clothing, etc.

    If so, then having an RFID tag on every item and an RFID reader at the door would allow them to tell whether something was paid for or not. It reads every RFID tag as you walk out and matches it to the items that were paid for (via the barcode you scanned).

    Don’t know if that’s what they’re doing, but it seems like an obvious way to allow DIY purchase/checkout while still guarding against theft.


    • Literally impossible to do this. The barcode only identifies the product by its UPC, not the actual box you’re carrying. They’d need a different barcode not just for every SKU but for every box.

      No, I’d say they just expect security and staff to notice if someone takes something out of the shop without paying for it.

      • “Literally impossible, unless they do .”

        I see that you’re trying to use the words “literally impossible”! Maybe you’d be better using some other words:

        A. “Very difficult”
        B. “Unlikely”
        C. “Unreasonable”
        D. “Not feasible”

      • Why would you need a different code for every box? Aren’t all boxes with the same barcode equivalent — isn’t that the whole point?

        You scan a box by UPC, and it reports the purchase of a DVD player that costs $X. When you walk out the door, the RFID reports you’re carrying a DVD player that costs $X. If you scanned one DVD player but then put it back and picked up another identical one, they wouldn’t care.

        If you picked up other boxes and tried to walk out with them, it would see that codes are leaving the store which have not been paid for yet, and sound the alarm.

        All they have to do is keep a record of what codes have been sold in that store, and see which are leaving the store. When one is leaving the store which hasn’t been sold, there’s a problem.

        What’s so hard about this?

      • RFID is available in a number of flavours; one of which enables a unique per box; but in order to identify that box, you need an RFID scanner (ie separate hardware) or a unique barcode for each box (like the serial number on the side of larger hardware).

        It _could_ be done; but not sure it’s worth it, given alarms going off all the time would kind of spoil the store ambience.

      • @Alex: someone standing next to you as you pay using your phone could pick up the same product without paying, and leave the store before you. No alarm for them, alarm for you, they’re off down the street while the security guard has a chat with you.

        Not the easiest way to steal something, but not a great experience from your point of view.

      • I wonder if the best security is not knowing how the security works. If I was shoplifting, I’d have no idea if I was going to be caught or not. Is Apple using some hidden technology? Plain clothes officers? Who knows, which makes it really hard to figure out how to smuggle something stolen out the door.

    • I recall reading something about iPhones having an RFID. If so, then the sensors would detect both the purchased items and the iPhone on which they were purchased–all leaving the store simultaneously. That would be secure enough, I think.

      • According to the app specs, this feature only works with iPhone 4 and 4S, so it’s quite possible that there is an RFID reader in these models. Apple would not have publicized the fact that the phones have an RFID reader since there was no use for this functionality when the phones were announced. On the other hand, there might have been some other limitation in earlier phones (inadequate camera resolution, hardware requirements.)

      • What would the point even be?

        The barcode identifies “the item” well enough for inventory purposes. Like others said above, it doesn’t matter if you walk out the door with “DVD player A1” or “DVD player A2”, if they’re the same SKU – because they’re the same thing as far as any relevant concern goes.

        (And what you read about was … a rumor. One that so far has zero basis in evidence.

        It’s not like RFID readers are invisible – in fact they’re standard ICs, and teardowns aren’t showing them.

        Smart money’s on it just being barcodes.)

        I bet it’s 4/4S for mere performance reasons, though that’s necessarily speculation.

      • Actually, my guess on the most likely reason for the iPhone 4/4S limitation is the Region Monitoring feature. This seems to be the only thing that’s limiting most apps or specific features to only working on the iPhone 4/4S. The new Square Card Case has the same restriction, for the exact same reason — they probably need to reliably know when you’re actually _in_ the store.

      • Sigivald: as has been pointed out elsewhere, the SKU is not enough to prevent theft. If a thief sees you buy an item, they could grab another of that item and leave before you do.

        Human guards will prevent this, of course, but we were speculating on how it might be done with the technology.

  3. And for those who love shopping and browsing the walls, it is about being out of the store ‘when’ you want to.

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  5. Tried it yet with an iTunes account without a CC attached? Like one with PayPal? Or with only gift card credit built up? Or iTunes allowance accrued?

    • I used to work in Apple Retail – they definitely DO have plain clothes security guards throughout all their stores. And employees are trained to spot suspicious activity and then report it to the plain clothes guards (instead of ever approaching the situation itself). That way, no one dressed in Apple attire would ever be tied to the policing.

      It’s all about customer psychology. The illusion of trust and openness in the stores is intact, even though things are being policed very closely.

      • I also worked in Apple Retail, and while yes Im sure they had plain clothes security at your store, that is not the case in every store. My store only had security on overnights and big launches, and they were not plain clothes. On regular holiday shopping, or typical shopping days there was no security. Apple definitely employs the Honor system with all their guests. Employees are “trained” to spot irregularities with customers, but like was mentioned above, you err on the side of trust, not distrust.

        Funny, but like was said above, Apple software (most of it) doesnt have serial numbers etc. So one could purchase a Single user version of Snow Leopard and install it on as many machines as you’d like, yet they still sold more copies of Snow Leopard Family Pack than the Single user version. Sometimes when you remove restrictions, you gain better customers? Shoplifters will do it regardless. I know someone walked right out of our store with a MacBook Air who’s security dot was loose and mustve not been turned on. No one noticed until much later in the day. A fit wasnt thrown and I’m pretty sure they didnt go through security tapes all day to find the culprit. They take it as a loss, but hell they made about $75K+ that day, so whats a 999 loss? Some stores don’t even have security cables on their display machines. Whats to stop someone from just unplugging the power adaptor and say they’re waiting for or just leaving a genius bar appointment? Employees arent allowed to ask you to open the laptop…
        Apple is weird that way lol

  6. What’s to keep someone from “fake buying” something by going through the motions, pretending to take a picture, signing, and walking out. I think there’s more to this than we’re letting on and they’re not telling us.

    • I assume they are still working the kinks out. The process did end with a visual receipt. Maybe they plan on posting people at the doors to check receipts on the way out?

    • Apple likes to try things out. My gut is that they are really counting on the honor system to make this work in the most ideal way possible, but they will be keeping a close eye on their shrinkage numbers.

    • The greeter could have a list on their phone of everything bought recently; then if they see someone walking out with something not on the list, they could ask to see the receipt.

      • Ooh, that’s good. A person at the door would be able to see each transaction as it happens, and match people to purchases, perhaps “checking off” purchases off the screen as they see them walking out the door. The reason why I like this over the bullshit experience at Costco is that they can passively monitor without even questioning most people. They see a woman walking out with an iPod case, an iPhone charger and a Magic Mouse, they can match that to a transaction on their screen for “Ann Perkins” with those items and let her walk unimpeded out the door. Someone walking to the door with a handful of whatever people like to steal, when the screen shows none of that item being sold, then you can approach the guest and ask them for a receipt since you pretty much know they are pulling one over on you.

  7. Oh, now I know why the Apple Stores always seem so busy. Most of those “customers”, milling around, fiddling with iPads and stuff–they aren’t customers at all. I bet the ratio of loss-prevention staff to customers is probably more than 5-to-1.

    • If it were five to one it would be a loss-creation staff. Have you ever seen anyone caught attempting to shoplift? And yet it’s cost-effective to employ dozens of people to prevent it? I don’t think so.

  8. My son works at an Apple store and here’s what he’s told me:

    Yep, it’s called EasySteal.
    Will someone ask to see your receipt? Nope, they’re not allowed to ask for it.
    They’re projecting at 30% increase in sales due to this and the new buy-it-online-and-pick-it-up-at-the-store feature

  9. My local Apple Store was closed for “renovations” for a few days last month. But the store looks exactly the same after re-opening. Now I’m wondering if they installed some electronics for this system during that time.

  10. <<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    IMO it’s absolutely possible.

    By reading the bar code, having an attached RFID, (and tracking the count of packages going through the doors) they can certainly tell if someone attempts to leave the store with a product that HASN’T been purchased. Yes, if one person buys a product and someone else goes through the door first, with the same product and without paying, he’ll get through. But such an approach would probably stop ninety percent of the offenders, and would certainly improve upon a “security and staff” only approach. I’d also expect that apple might restrict self pay on more expensive items.

    • Also: they can tell that the iPhone used to pay for the item is leaving at the same time as the item itself.

      • Unfortunately no. GPS isn’t that precise. If there was an RFID chip in your iPhone, this could work, but there isn’t.

  11. My best guess is that if there is an “eye in the sky” or someone else monitoring purchases to cut down on shrinkage they could have a system where every time someone purchases something they are notified. Then they could more or less monitor what people are leaving the store with. Has no one purchased a red iPad case in the last 15 minutes, then why do you have on in your hand walking out.

    Of course this may be practical in a small mall store setting though it would be much harder to monitor in practice in a store like NYC 5th Ave.

    I think they just hope people will be honest.

    • Last night there were three dozen people in the Apple Store, not including employees. That might be the smallest crowd I have ever seen in this Apple Store. And that is in suburban Portland, OR, not even the main store downtown. I can’t imagine how they would police even that many people.

  12. They’ll be able to tell which stores have the highest rates of EasyStealing™ and I bet for those stores they’ll ask to see receipts or just cancel the self-checkout process.

  13. @Adam, what if the video feeds are sent back to a centralized monitoring facility (like a casino), where personnel could be dynamically optimized for the number of stores and traffic? If they spot a problem, they could immediately zap an alert to all the employees in the store on their iPhones. This actually doesn’t seem that realistic (for one thing I doubt they want to turn AS employees into cops), but it’s possible.

  14. I don’t think this will lead to a substantial increase in theft, because:

    1. It is already possible to buy goods in an Apple Store without going to the checkout points, by paying a member of staff who has an iPhone-based portable point-of-sale terminal. This means that the security staff can’t simply identify shoplifters depending on the direction from which they approach the exit (as they can in a supermarket), so they have to use other tactics. Having shopped in an Apple Store, the tactic they use appears to be to have uniformed security staff patrolling the store to give you a visual reminder of their presence, combined with security staff at the entrance to identify any obvious shoplifters (most of them are obvious if you know what you’re looking for) at the point of entry.

    2. Relatively few shoplifters will bother developing a new technique just for the Apple Store (select item, pretend to buy it on phone, leave store) when they already have techniques that they’re happy with. Most already-successful shoplifters will carry on doing what they’re doing now, so the losses from theft probably won’t change.

    3. Although virtually everything in an Apple Store is CRAVED, most of the items on open display are the less-CRAVED and relatively inexpensive ones: you can’t pick up a Macbook Pro, iPad or iPhone from a shelf and buy it on your phone. This limits the possible loss.

    4. They do check receipts on exit if a security guard in the store has seen you do something suspicious, because I’ve had it happen to me. The security staff seem to make good use of their radios for this purpose.

    Taking into account increased revenues from shorter checkout lines and the ‘wow!’ factor, I think Apple probably knows what it’s doing with it’s bottom line.

    • There are people there who are helping guide customers. They do check-ins for Genius appointments, handle some basic returns, etc. I didn’t need a bag but I’m sure they would have fetched me one if needed.

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  16. This sounds amazing – but sadly I think it will eventually be quietly withdrawn.

    Not because of average customers – most people are honest

    Not even because of petty thieves – I’m sure Apple can cover the minor losses.

    It’s the organised criminals that worry me. As soon as the system is widespread enough, an organised gang could make thousands of fake purchases per day. Apple products are so desirable, their bound to be targeted by professionals sooner or later.

  17. You can’t do this easypay on apple hardware (which has the highest cost to apple, and the least margin; although the markup is at 70+%)
    Easypay is primarily on accessories and those are mostly in the sub 200$ range with with markup of 150+% expensive leather iPad or macbook case up to 400+% simple 30$ iPhone cases.

    This is merchandise that might be targeted by individual thieves (“need a new case for my iPhone”) but rather not by gangs (having stolen 100 iPad cases, it´s a pain in the butt to sell these off for at most 50% RSP).

    There´s probably a threshold at 500$ or so for this easy pay system.
    If it isn´t, than theoretically thieves should target the most expensive headphones and boom boxes (B&W zeppelin, Dr Dre Beats & Etymotic come to mind), but those items are usually
    a) in limited supply and
    b) closely looked after by store employees and restocking personnel.

    I doubt theft will increase dramatically.

    BTW, there´s CCTV, but it´s only for “after the theft reviews” and there´s no RFID (and there won´r ever be)


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  19. Wow, you must have saved at least 30 seconds. Plus, you didn’t have to interact and communicate with another human being. Congrats!

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  22. How strange that such a wonderful experience is being overshadowed by those wishing to find other faults.

    Just get used to the fact that Apple works. The others tend not to.

    Keep enjoying the experience EI

    • Ha, ha! We have a laptop and mac mini, two iPads, two iPhones and an Apple TV. Everything is connected wirelessly and we have no physical media in the house anymore. All movies, music and TV shows are on a 2TB hard drive connected to the mini. I don’t want to burn out the laptop DVD drive when I rip stuff so figured an $80 investment in an external DVD/CD drive made sense. The mini has no drive. For the record, I did debate buying one for a while. 🙂

      The funny thing is that four years ago I didn’t own a single Apple product! It just amazes me how well all these things work so I have bought more. Being an iOS developer I got into Apple products for test and development purposes but now find Apple stuff everywhere I turn around here.

      (For the record, I think of myself as an aficionado, not a fanboy. I appreciate Apple’s aesthetic but don’t make excuses for its every move and don’t run out and buy Apple’s latest and greatest the minute it is announced.)

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  24. Went in today and bought an iPhone case with this system. Worked flawlessly, but it felt weird just walking out with something without ever interacting with anyone, getting out a credit card, or checking my item at the door. I don’t see how they could make purchasing things at a retail store much faster or easier than this, the whole transaction was almost instantaneous (the longest part being me trying to find and orient the bar code correctly).

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  26. I’m glad to hear that the experience lived up to my expectations –

    I see this as another way that Apple is pushing the envelope and shattering myths. No one thought retail this could work this way. Yet Apple did it anyway.

    I think it’s the cutting edge of retail, maybe not something that can roll out to most retailers, at least not in the near future.

    But in my mind, it’s an extension of the Starbucks app. I get to talk to the barista at Starbucks now to tell them what drink I’m having and then I get to talk and interact with them. I scan my iPhone when it’s time, we never talk about payment and it doesn’t get in the way of personal interaction. If I’m in a hurry, I get my caffeine and go.

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  28. To those of you who think Apple is just “trusting” the customers: you do realize that Apple stores have always had plainclothes security personnel, often retired police officers, working for them, right? Most people don’t notice them because they blend in pretty well, but if you know what to look for you can spot them.

    Apple isn’t naive. Trust is good, control is better.

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