How Steve Jobs Reinvented Retailing, Pt. 1

Lessons from man who changed way we communicate, listen to music, obtain information

Gerald Lewis

NEW YORK -- Steve Jobs' untimely death last year focused attention on his amazing career, putting him in a league with great inventors and thinkers who changed the world, such as Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. Unlike them, however, Jobs was not an inventor or a creator. Rather, he was an intuitive genius who shaped products and ideas created by others to make them better, simpler, more functional and more beautiful--and then developed new markets for them.

His relentless approach enabled him to change our world in many ways: the way we communicate and network, the way we listen to music, the way we obtain information, the way we watch entertainment and the movies we watch.

Less recognized is the way Jobs reinvented the way we buy the things that make all this possible, in other words: retailing. Surprisingly, this story has been largely unreported. For example, Stores magazine, in their issue listing the Top 100 retailers in 2011, did not highlight Apple's meteoric rise, or even mention it in the sidebar on electronics and entertainment.

When the first Apple Store opened, the concept was derided by a lot of retail experts. After all, Gateway's attempt to sell computers through their own stores had been an abject failure. Apple, however, is probably the biggest retail success story in history.


The first Apple Store opened in May 2001, and by July 2011 Apple was the 21st largest retailer in America (larger than JC Penney), with more than $20 billion in annual retail sales.

The company's Fifth Avenue New York store has the highest sales per square foot of any retail store in the world, higher sales than any other single retail store in New York, including Bloomingdales.

On top of all this, only 15% of Apple's sales are made through their own stores.

Why is this so? And how much can we apply what Steve Jobs did in revolutionizing technology retailing to the more mundane world of convenience retailing?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Steve Jobs achieved retail success, not by finding a "silver bullet" but by doing some very basic things: learning the retail business, hiring and retaining the best experts, creating a unique customer experience, using great design, keeping it simple, demanding consistency and sweating the details. However, he also refused to accept conventional wisdom and added some intuitively brilliant refinements.

So a lot of the things we can learn from Steve Jobs are already known. (In fact, I have covered many of them in previous CSP columns). They break down into two categories, which I'll cover in CSP Daily News stories in the coming days:

  • Things you can do whether or not you subscribe to Jobs' philosophical ideas.
  • Things based on Jobs' deeply held, somewhat Spartan and Zen ethos that are embodied throughout Apple.

Gerald Lewis provides transformational retailing guidance and execution to convenience store operators. He can be reached at [email protected] or (646) 215-7741. For more information go to