How Apple Retail Lost Its Charm

Apple Retail workers have begun to unionize nationwide as company sentiment has shifted from a focus on customer experience to upselling as much as possible.

By Kristi Eckert | Published

Working in retail is not easy. Long shifts on your feet dealing with the public is challenging at its best and soul-sucking at its worst. And I say that speaking from personal experience. However, Apple retail has always seemed to defy that overarching truth, until now that is.  

Unlike many other retail stores, Apple retail was unique in that individuals aspired to work there. I know, because I was one of them. I worked at Apple’s 5th Avenue location in New York City for a handful of years. 

Working there taught me a lot. It helped me grow as a person, and honestly, for all intents and purposes, it was a pretty good gig. At the time (this was around 2011 or so) I was making $14 per hour as a Specialist, that base salary figure is a lot higher now, but back then for a 22-year-old trying to make ends meet in New York City the pay was nothing short of a godsend. 

Working for Apple Retail came with a lot of other perks, too. As an employee, the product discounts are stellar. In addition to large percentages off of products, the company also gave employees discounts on gym memberships and local eateries through a program called Passport.

However, when I worked there, the single best thing about being an Apple Retail employee, was that it didn’t feel like traditional retail. The training was called CORE, it was a weeklong intensive program designed to prepare you to work in an Apple Retail environment. Essentially, it focused on teaching employees about the Apple Steps of Service so that you could facilitate an experience for every customer that walked through the door. 

As an Apple Specialist back then, we were expected to engage with customers in a way that would allow us to figure out the best product solution for them. There was less of a focus on selling and upselling and more of a focus on doing what was right for every person that set foot into an Apple Retail location. 

Don’t get me wrong days were long and hard. In fact, at the flagship location that I worked at, tens of thousands of people walked through those doors each and every day. It was easy to feel like a sardine in a sardine can. But knowing that you had a team of people that had your back and getting to interact with guests from the position of knowing that the company actually wanted you to help them instead of just to sell them something somehow made all the difference. 

That is what has allowed Apple Retail to stand apart from other stores for so long. Unfortunately, though, that appears to have changed. A report from Bloomberg examined how the culture of Apple Retail has shifted so drastically that it’s sparked a wave of unionization attempts nationwide. 

An Apple Store veteran of 15 years, Graham DeYoung, told Bloomberg that working as a Genius used to be about actually helping people fix their tech but it has now somehow shifted into another chance to upsell.  “As a technician, my heart is to fix your shit. That’s what I want to do. But what I’m encouraged to do is to say, ‘Well, this is what your phone is worth for a trade-in,’” lamented DeYoung. 

apple retail tim cook

The change in culture is what motivated DeYoung to head up unionization efforts at his store in Towson, Maryland. Kevin Gallagher, another former Apple Retail employee at the Towson location bookended DeYoung’s reasons to unionize. “When I started with the company, it felt like the only number that they worried about was your customer service score… [now] they’re looking to milk every last cent out of every square foot,” said Gallagher. 

In addition, to the Towson, Maryland location, an Apple Retail store in Oklahoma City has also unionized. And other stores across the nation are taking steps to unionize, too, including in New York City (my former Apple Retail locale) which is home to two flagship stores – 5th Avenue and Grand Central Station. 

Unfortunately, the shift in Apple Retail culture has been happening for a while. Some employees attribute it to Tim Cook taking the helm following Steve Jobs’ death in 2011. Other says the real change happened when Deirdre O’Brien was appointed to head of retail in 2019, and still others say it’s both. 

Despite who’s fault it is or where blame is ultimately placed, the fact is that Apple Retail has truly lost its charm and taken a steep fall from grace. The tech giant seems to have forgotten the very principles that its stores were built upon, and that is clearly what has led it astray. 

What’s worse, is that it seems that Apple Retail execs are using the benefits that are still provided to employees as a way to take focus away from a reality where employees are expressing they feel more like seedy car salespeople than Apple specialists. “We’re proud to offer our teams exceptional benefits and strong compensation, including new family support and education programs,” said a spokesperson when probed about the unionization campaigns. 

At this point, the stores and their employees are reaching a new precipice. Unionization efforts, whether successful or not, will certainly serve to further transform store culture and employee relationships with superiors. The coming years will reveal whether or not former sentiments that positioned Apple Retail so high above other outlets will be rekindled or crippled. My personal hope is for the former.