Tech giant Apple stands on the cusp of being the highest valued American company ever, close to a capitalisation of $1trn.
That’s almost too big to comprehend, a stunning 12 noughts, or $1,000,000,000,000.
As many retailers close stores, post losses and face declining footfall and sales, it represents an unimaginable state of financial confidence.
It signifies too the irreversible forward motion of technology that is remoulding the world and how everyone in it behaves – a digital earthquake that has left many retailers bewildered.
The seismic changes precipitated by the debut little more than a decade ago of the iPhone – did you imagine reading this and so much else on your phone back then? – didn’t just revolutionise communications. It revolutionised retail.
From how people shop to how they pay for their shopping to how they expect to communicate with retailers, nothing has ever been the same.
“Some might lament the changed rules that apply in retail today. That’s pointless, it’s just the way of the world. Better to look at what made Apple so successful”
The iPhone enabled Argos to become the first UK multichannel retailer to notch up m-commerce sales (in 2015) of £1bn. It precipitated a mobile payments arms race. And it created a culture in which consumers tap on Twitter apps to check on the progress of online orders or to vent at retail social media teams about their service disappointments.
Some might lament the changed rules that apply in retail today. That’s pointless, it’s just the way of the world. Better to look at what made Apple so successful and learn from the consumer insights that result.
A couple of examples would be convenience and life enhancement. Innovations such as the app store and iTunes made it easier to shop and to have fun as the world tilted online.
How convenient are many retailers? Is IKEA’s race-track format fit for purpose as the perceived speed of life increases? Is it convenient for department stores to merchandise their space by brand rather than by product?
The iPhone’s speed and ease of communication assisted the take-up of social media and all the fun that brings, whatever problems accompany it.
Is it easy to deal with a retailer about a problem over social media or at text speed? Frequently not, because they often rely on unsatisfactory call centre arrangements. Etailers such as Asos are showing the way in meeting new customer service expectations, however, with rapid responses across all comms channels.
Does a visit to a shop deliver experiences that can’t be matched by clicking on an app? Again, frequently not. Although many are more than managing whether it’s the Aladdin’s cave, bargain magic moment that B&M can deliver or the in-store theatre at which Selfridges excels.
As well as raising consumer expectations, Apple has reflected the spirit of the age.
“By striking partnerships with digital pioneers that bring new expertise and capabilities, such as Alibaba, they may open unexpected and profitable doors”
When chief executive Tim Cook came out as gay – a personal decision, not one based on business interests – or when, as Apple did this week, it acknowledges developments that make people uneasy, such as the amount of time spent on phones and therefore it offers a limiting option, the company clicks with a diverse base of consumers.
More traditional retailers need to be similarly alert to the myriad ways in which consumer perceptions, social responsibility and affiliation with brands are created and cemented.
Such characteristics do not always feature on retail agendas, whether in the boardroom or on the clicks or bricks trading floors. They probably need to.
Few might imagine they can achieve the prowess of Apple, but they have more in common with the tech powerhouse than they may think.
And by striking partnerships with digital pioneers that bring new expertise and capabilities, such as Alibaba, they may open unexpected and profitable doors.
Yes, some of the new ways of doing business will crash and burn, and some of those new partners may prove fairweather friends. But those retailers that don’t open the door to the new face decline.
Some of the approaches that Apple has taken could come straight from the retail textbooks of pastmasters such as Tesco founder Jack Cohen.
As Apple’s late co-founder Steve Jobs once said: “Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Or, perhaps most relevant as the retail industry readjusts and as evidence that all that’s gone before is not worthless: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.
“You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
Many retailers would agree with that. What made companies great in the past isn’t irrelevant in the future. But it may well need to be cast anew.