Part of me loved contributing to the ‘30 years of Retail Week’ video recently.

Yes, that does feel quite a long time to have been involved in anything – and it’s actually even longer when I include being the daughter of a shopkeeper when knocking around the shop at the age of five counted as ‘childcare’.

However, the ‘30 year’ request came hard on the heels of a ‘40 years of Marketing Week’ interview. (I should emphasise that the 30 and 40 years ran concurrently, and the latter stretched the truth of my experience. Honestly.) A woman can get sensitive.

Suffice it to say I’ve had feet in both marketing and retail camps for, er, quite a long time, and while it’s great to reflect occasionally (as the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it), my final words of perspective in the Marketing Week interview were “stay nosy”.

“All those years ago, Apple spoke to uncomfortable truths about what shops could be like and what their role might need to be in future ”

It’s obviously good to stay very nosy about the extraordinary possibilities of technology, but in particular to make sure that what you find particularly enthralling is what all this can (and can’t) do for your people, your business and your brand. 

When I was asked about ‘significant moments’ in my retail experience, I actually mentioned a funny event that stuck in my mind at the World Retail Congress some years ago.

It was significant because the Most Innovative Retailer of the Year award had just been given to Apple. Cue much moaning and mumbling among more traditional retailers that Apple wasn’t a ‘proper’ retailer.

This was interesting because what that suggested was, far from an instinct for nosiness about what had made Apple so successful in the retail space, more established retailers were trying to win by ejecting the alien invasion from the category.

All those years ago, it spoke to uncomfortable truths about what shops could be like (ie: not like shops) and what their role might need to be in the future (ie: maybe not the main channel to customers). Not tackling those truths in a timely way has led us to the high street and shopping mall cliff-edges we’re seeing now.

Apple today

Fast-forward to today, and it has been fascinating listening to Angela Ahrendts, the Apple global head of retail (and former Burberry star CEO), talk about her hopes for the next-generation ‘Today at Apple’ experience.

She talks of “creating a modern-day town square, where everyone is welcome in a space where the best of Apple comes together to connect with one another, discover a new passion, or take their skill to the next level”. Retail as gathering places for communities.

She also goes on to say: “I think [retail] has to serve a bigger purpose than just selling.” Although, they do manage to sell a few things along the way and make a bit of money too.

“Reimagining spaces, channels and human relationships make a quite important to-do list for anyone in retail”

The Apple brand has always managed to combine and blur marketing and retail (as well as technology, fashion, design, hospitality and, for that matter, the nature of being human).

It has been the leading manifestation of all the principles of building the most valuable brand you can, in any category. Clarity, coherence and leadership (in all its senses). Wrapping itself around customers in a way that makes them want to buy (versus being hard sold to).

Reimagining spaces, channels and human relationships make a quite important to-do list for anyone in retail today. It’s exciting and stimulating stuff.

But even St Apple is going to have to watch it. Listening to current CEO Tim Cook, you do get the sense that Apple’s clarity is becoming a bit blurred. He recently outlined seven elements of its mission and values (the second of which is, with a nice irony, “we believe in the simple, not the complex”). Cook has also been Known To Wear A Tie, which I thought was illegal in modern business.

Ironically, Microsoft has recently gripped the ‘clarity’ agenda with new CEO Satya Nadella, and has used strong thinking about ‘One Microsoft’ to give critical mass and energy to pivot its business to services and exciting innovation (example excited headline from Mashable: ‘Admit it: Microsoft is now a braver, more innovative company than Apple’).

We’ll see – and perhaps literally when we eventually get to see the new Microsoft store a few doors down from Apple on Regent Street.

Watch that space. Apple needs to stay nosy too.