After a search that took nearly a year, Apple yesterday announced that Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts will be joining Apple this spring as the company's Senior VP of Retail and Online Stores.
Make no mistake about it, heading up Apple's retail stores is an extremely challenging and important position. Indeed, the short tenure of former Senior VP of Retail John Browett underscores just how challenging it is to follow in the footsteps of Ron Johnson, Apple's original retail mastermind.
Apple stores are well-oiled machines that together comprise the most profitable retail business in the country. The person charged with heading up this portion of Apple's business carries a lot of responsibility, which is likely why Apple took its sweet time in finding a replacement for Browett, who was unceremoniously dismissed last October.
Here's an interesting fact to consider; the top retail position at Apple has been vacant for 15 of the last 22 months.
So just who is Angela Ahrendts and is there any reason to think she'll be a better fit at Apple than Browett?
In a word, yes.
Ahrendts comes to Apple from the world of retail luxury whereas John Browett came to Apple from Dixons, a UK-based retail chain that many were quick to label as cheap and unorganized. In other words, while Ahrendts comes to Apple from the world of fashion, she undoubtedly appreciates the importance of premium branding and cultivating a top-notch shopping experience.
Whereas the April 2012 hiring of Browett was greeted with skepticism, especially by those familiar with Dixons, the hiring of Ahrendts seems to be a much better choice.
Even Ron Johnson heaped praise on the hire, telling Bloomberg TV that Ahrendts is a "terrific choice" who will be "exceptionally well received".
On Apple's new hire, Ron Johnson tells @BloombergTV in statement she's a "terrific choice," will be "exceptionally well received"- Jon Erlichman (@JonErlichman) October 15, 2013
Over the past seven years, Ahrendts served as the CEO of Burberry where she helped revitalize the company's image and bottom line, taking it to new and more profitable heights. A native of Indiana, and a reportedly tireless worker who gets up at 4:35 am everyday, Ahrendts over the past five years helped Burberry triple its revenue while simultaneously increasing product margins. During her tenure as CEO, the share price of Burberry nearly quadrupled.
One of the more interesting aspects of Ahrendts is that she was able to swiftly and effectively meld the worlds of fashion and technology. While Apple likes to talk about how it stands at the intersection of liberal arts and technology, Burberry under Ahrendts seemingly stood in a similar intersection, albeit in the fashion world.
Burberry's Spring/Summer 2013 campaign video gained over one million YouTube views in just 48 hours. And the luxury brand now has 16 million fans on Facebook and more than two million followers on Twitter.
Wander around Burberry's London flagship store on Regent Street and you'll find sales assistants armed with iPads. Meanwhile mirrors transform into screens displaying catwalk images thanks to special technology sewn into some clothing and accessories.
What's more is that the actual store has been redesigned to recreate an experience that reflects the company's website, Burberry World Live.
In September 2012, BrandRepublic described Burberry's Regent Street store thusly:
The store's features include a 22ft-high screen, 500 hidden speakers and a hydraulic stage. It also showcases RFID microchips – radio-frequency identification – in some of its clothes. This means that when a customer wears the microchipped clothing, they can look into a mirror that transforms into a screen, which shows how the garment would look on a catwalk. There will also be a digitally enabled gallery and events space.
Former colleagues say she stressed the growth of Burberry's website when other luxury brands shied away from e-commerce. She placed Apple iPads in stores, streamed Burberry fashion shows live on the company website and adopted new software to cut costs and improve profitability.
"She just aggressively drove technology into every facet of the business," said Justin Cooke, Burberry's former global vice president of public relations. "She saw it as a real enabler."
Also of note is that Jessica Lessin, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, was able to dig up a few interesting tidbits about Ahrendts.
Apple's new retail chief Angela Ahrendts is a watch lady, say people who know her. I am certainly not implying that Apple, which is developing the iWatch, nabbed this high-profile executive because she loves watches or because one of her most recent additions to the Burberry line was a very high-end watch brand (both true). I also hear she took particular interest in the watch retailing space in Burberry stores. Let's just say her passion for watches is a coincidence. Or maybe just a plus.
While this is likely nothing more than a coincidence, it's certainly worth sharing given the bevy of other rumors surrounding Apple's mythical iWatch. More so, it lends more credence to the notion that Ahrendts will fit in much better at Apple than Browett ever did.
Recall that Browett a few months ago indicated that he just "didn't fit" with the way Apple runs things.
"It was one of those things where you're rejected for fit rather than competency," Browett explained in March of this year.
As for Ahrendts, it seems like she already espouses the Apple philosophy of premium pricing for premium products. During a 2011 interview with CNN, Ahrendts was asked about Burberry's refusal to cut prices during lean economic times.
Actually just the opposite. I mean, we're doing everything we can to protect the long term sustainability of the brand. You know Burberry has been around 155 years and, no, nothing short term. Everything is for the long term. That's why these big flagship stores that we're opening up, I mean we're going from 8 to 25,000 square feet of selling space just right here in London alone with our Regent street store... When you're playing long term and you're playing the global luxury brand game, it's very different.
Sound familiar? Apple has of course long been criticized for not lowering the price of its products, which typically command a premium over competing products. Most recently, Apple was criticized for not making the iPhone 5c as affordable as some analysts were hoping.
Lastly, it's probably quite telling that Ahrendts will head up Apple's retail and online operations. Tim Cook noted in his email to Apple employees that he has "wanted one person to lead both of these teams for some time" but never found someone capable of doing so until he met Ahrendts.
As one final point, note that Burberry has 479 stores worldwide, which is about 60 more than Apple currently has.