The Launch of The Apple Watch: A Costly Misstep and a Dangerous Precedent

I was 13 years old when the original iPhone launched. My brother and I waited in line outside the Apple Store for almost 8 hours, and ended up being one of the first people in the world to get the new device. As the iPhone’s popularity grew, we decided to continue the tradition and have “camped out” for more then 12 product launches over the last decade. At the last iPhone launch we waited in line a grand total of 17 hours!

As many who follow Apple know, a great deal of the company’s success comes from it’s core base of “die-hard” customers. These users are responsible for creating launch day hype, serving as product evangelists, and even boosting launch weekend sales numbers.

In exchange for this opening weekend hype, Apple provides it’s early-adapters with a fantastic launch day experience. Customers are often treated to free snacks as they wait in line, a party-like atmosphere with huge cheers and applause as they enter the store, and of course the opportunity to show all of their friends their new iDevices.

As Apple prepares to launch the Apple Watch this Friday, the day will mark the first major Apple product launch in more then 8 years where customers won’t be able to purchase the product in an Apple Store on launch day. While this doesn’t seem like a big deal, it sets a dangerous precedent that threatens to diminish the cult culture that has contributed to Apple’s tremendous success over the past decade.

The company announced the Watch’s launch date by publishing a press release stating “on April 24, Apple Watch will be available online or by reservation in Apple’s retail stores”. However a month later, Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s head of retail, released a statement saying “we will be taking orders for Apple Watch exclusively online during the initial launch period”.

This statement served as a retraction to the original launch plan, and caused confusion between customers and employees alike, with some employees still adamant that their respective stores would be selling the device on launch day. In fact, there was so much confusion that Apple had to send a retail-wide employee memo clarifying that there would be no stock in-stores on launch day. This undoubtedly served as a rare mis-step for the company that is typically so detail oriented in it’s operations.

While low supply seems like a reasonable reason to delay in-store sales, the reality is that Apple should have stuck with their tried and true launch day tradition and delayed online sales until after a retail launch, like they have done with previous supply-constrained products.

The most noticable side effect from this botched launch may be the lack of press, which traditionally ranges from national nightly news sements to the front page of the local paper.

Additionally, the company now has millions of dissapointed pre-order customers who expected to receive the Watch on launch day. Instead the vast majority were assigned (post-order) shipping dates of “June,” leading to a tremendous amount of public disappointment.

However, the most puzzling mis-step in the Watch’s launch is that 8 physical stores will actually will be carrying stock on launch day — however none of them will be Apple Stores. Ahrendts, who comes from a former high-end fashion position at Burberry, made deals with upscale retailers around the world to sell and display the Watch on launch day. All but one of these stores are outside of the United States, which means that an obscure retail store called Maxfields in Los Angeles will literally be the only store in the United States selling the Apple Watch on April 24th.

For most familiar with Apple, this seems close to unbelievable. The company that is known for intense control over it’s retail business is putting the entire US launch of it’s “most personal device yet” in the hands of a third party. This sets a dangerous precendent for Apple. The move makes it seem like the company will start placing precedent on logistics over customer happiness.

While some may blame the lack of an in-store launch on the need for increased time to show all the Watch combinations to a customer, the reality is that prior product launches have also suffered from wait issues. Remember the iPhone 3G launch, where AT&T’s activation network failed? Each activation took upwards of an hour, but somehow the weekend still ended with customers happy and record sales numbers.

When the Apple Watch “launches” on April 24th, millions of around the world will be unable to purchase a device they would have literally waited in line for hours to buy. Going forward Apple needs to understand that it’s famous launch day culture has been a huge part of the company’s meteoric success. While the day may not be logistically easy for the company, it’s important enough that Apple needs return to it’s roots and do whatever it takes to make the day exciting and memorable for die-hard and first-time customers alike.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.