NEW YORK (
) -- There's no obvious magic to an
Store -- lots of light and glass, pale wood tables, a white-walled space all neatly divided into product groups -- a space as timeless as when CEO Steve Jobs first
a decade ago.
But unlike other big tech brands that ventured into retail --
, the Apple Store has managed to cast a widening spell over consumers.
And on the eve of its 10-year anniversary Thursday, the magic isn't showing any signs of fading.
Last quarter, Apple's store sales grew 90% above year-ago levels and operating profits in retail more than doubled to $807 million. With $3.2 billion in retail sales and 323 stores in 11 countries, the average Apple store pulls in $10 million a quarter. That's almost diamond store-caliber sales; luxury retailer
averages $13.2 million a store in quarterly sales.
Some Apple stores, like the flagship 5th Ave "glass cube," have become shrines of sorts for New York-visiting shopping pilgrims, eager to plunk down big cash for a shiny trinket. Apple has turned this cultish "must have" desire into a cash machine other merchants can only hope to mimic.
Apple sells gadgets like computers, music players and phones, but the feel is more like a fashion boutique where tech is like a wardrobe geared to the young, cool and affluent.
Tech watchers and retail analysts say at the heart of the Apple Store mystique is a simple element: good products.
"The appeal of the Apple Store first and foremost is that they have products people want to buy -- you can't really overstate the importance of this," said Peter Rojas, founder of
, a question-and-answer and review site for tech fans.
Apple sells all its products online, but the stores supply a way for people to express their buying desire. Like a car showroom, the new models of iPads and MacBooks are there to be touched and test driven by
a generally richer group of shoppers
While Steve Jobs gets credit for the strikingly clean aesthetics of the stores, it's said that the brain behind the retail curtain is former
executive Ron Johnson, who joined Apple in 2000. It was Johnson who convinced a reluctant Jobs that the genius bar -- the stores' tech support stations -- would be huge.
As stores go, Apple scores well on retail analysts' checklists.
"The products are the biggest component of the stores," and they are displayed attractively with lots of visibility, said William Blair consumer retail analyst Sharon Zackfia.
As for the strong appeal of the Apple Store, Zackfia said it's easy to use. "They have a non-traditional retail approach, no cash register, customers check out on an iPhone." And to add to the equation, "the genius bar drives traffic," said Zackfia.
But the specific features of the Apple Store don't fully explain the larger story or, as Jobs has called it, a more "complete user experience."
Hardware is just part of the picture, said gdgt's Rojas. "Tech has absolutely become something bigger than just the devices themselves. It's become part of our popular culture."
The timing of Apple's plunge into retail was apt. The Apple Store was launched during a general shift away from classic big-box stores, which featured less-experienced, less niche-y sales help.
"Apple offered smaller boxes and knowledgeable staff," said Zackfia.
And if there is one overarching strength behind Apple's retail success, it might be the company's carefully crafted impression of simplicity, say analysts.
"The ability of Apple to hide the complexity of the technology is the true beauty of it," said Rodman Renshaw analyst Ashok Kumar. "Having no users' manual for their products is the ultimate testament to the quality of what they do."
Here are a few tech companies' retail efforts that don't quite capture the magic.
The Nokia Store
The world's biggest phone maker had Apple-like ambitions. Similar to Apple, Nokia controlled all aspects of its phones, from the operating systems to the hardware. A dive into retailing -- where the stores would sell phones and accessories -- was probably seen as a logical extension.
Unfortunately, among Nokia's many recent woes, the company failed to find a supportive U.S. telco partner to carry its phones. Nokia's market share here, already small, fell to single digits.
In 2009, after three unspectacular years, Nokia closed its two U.S. stores in Chicago and New York.
The Sony Store
Originally dubbing its stores Sony Style, the company wanted its retail outlets to give consumers a hands-on opportunity to try out the "Sony experience." Sony makes everything from alarm clocks to Xperia smartphones, but it has only a handful of hugely-successful products, like its PlayStation video game system.
Sony has 27 stores in the U.S., including the two-story shop in Sony Plaza in Midtown Manhattan. Yet compared to the sleek, subdued setting of the Apple Store, Sony's shop gives off more of a noisy arcade ambiance.
The Microsoft Store
The software giant made its second leap into retail a mere two years ago. Its first venture was a store in San Francisco's Metreon, a shopping and entertainment complex run at the time by Sony, coincidently. Microsoft closed the store in 2001 after two years.
Today, Microsoft has eight stores and has said it plans to add at least three more stores this year. The first two were opened in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Mission Viejo, Calif. in 2009 to help kick off the Windows 7 debut.
As a software company, Microsoft doesn't have a lot of products to play with, but visitors can always fire up a demo laptop and take a Windows application for a spin.
"It's generally rare for brands to be good retailers," said Blair's Zackfia, also noting
and former U.S. computer maker
, which have had limited or no success with their retail operations.
Nintendo World Store
Nintendo World is the most Apple-like store of the bunch. Maybe it's the way Nintendo only makes a handful of products featuring simple, clean lines showcased under bright, blue neon lighting that makes it the tech retail shop that most closely resembles Apple.
Nintendo has only one U.S. location: a two-story shop in New York City's Rockefeller Center, which opened six years ago.
The gaming store specializes in its Wii and DS consoles. It also sells T-shirts -- something that Apple hasn't yet added to its magical money machine.
--Written by Scott Moritz in New York.To contact this writer, click here: Scott Moritz, or email: email@example.com.Follow Scott on Twitter at MoritzDispatch