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Interview: Designer of Apple stores Tim Kobe on the future of retail in Singapore

Photo by Yen Meng Jiin

Tim Kobe worked with former Apple CEO Steve Jobs to create the original concept for Apple stores. These stores forever changed our understanding of retail experiences with their sleek architecture, minimalist aesthetics and detailed attention to customer experience.

Since then the 62-year-old architect-designer and his company Eight Inc have worked with some of the biggest companies in the world including Nike, Virgin Atlantic, Citi, Ford, Barclays, Xiaomi and Nissan, often helping them to rethink the way they serve their customers in the physical and digital realms. 

In 2010, Kobe move his family from his native California to Singapore. He could pick any city to live in. But he chose Singapore because he felt no other city boasted better public design. He shares his views on the state of retail, what Gen Z wants, and why Singapore needs to do a better job of embracing its mavericks.

You’re helping several companies transform themselves so they can offer more seamless experiences between their digital and physical services. Could you elaborate on that? 

Thinking of the physical and the digital as polarities is outdated. Those of us who grew up in a pre-iPhone world have been amazed by how our smartphones have transformed our lives. But if you look at the Gen Z population (roughly defined as those born between 1995 and 2015), they don’t see this technology as all that interesting. They expect it to be always present – like oxygen. They expect every relationship they have with a company to be both a physical and digital one. What we’re doing with companies is helping them integrate the physical and the mobile so that it’s a completely seamless experience from the customer perspective. For instance, if you go into a Xiaomi store, you should be able to see a product, scan for all the information about its features, try them, decide if you want the product, then go to the point of purchase to collect it. From that interaction, Xiaomi should also be able to get insights into what you like or don’t like, which can inform its future interaction with you. Xiaomi has 50 million loyal customers it calls Mi Fans. When Xiaomi wants to produce a product, they put it into the channel to get feedback. Before they even spend a dollar on tooling, they know whether or not the product will be successful because they have a focus group of 50 million. Imagine the competitive advantage Xiaomi has compared to those who don't have those insights. 

What’s the future of the shopping mall then? Is there any way we can revitalise the experience?

Retail is not dead. The only thing that’s dead is a bad retailer. Never have so many stores close and at the same time never have so many opened. The companies that can create extraordinary customer experience, the ones that can build loyalty, advocacy and conversion, the ones that are stepping back from an operating model to one that is much more focused on a relationship model with the customers, they’re the ones winning. As somebody told me the other day, every company today is a technology company. It used to be that technology companies were those guys over there doing online things. But to compete today, you have to be an online company. If you’re a mom and pop retailer that doesn’t  have other channel presence besides a single physical touch point, you’ll find it challenging to compete. Right now in the US, we have about 330 million people and about 27 square feet of retail space per person. Think about that for a second. That is way, way too much retail. Scott Galloway, who is a prominent spokesman on retail, predicted the death of pure play. And what he meant by that is that there is never going to be a pure play retailer or an e-commerce player that is successful as only one or the other.

What can be done for, say, some Orchard Road malls that aren’t drawing enough customers?

Right now, there’s a lot of consolidation in the retail space and the ones that can offer the greatest, most seamless experience are the ones that will thrive. There’ll always be physical spaces because we’re social beings and we need social interactions. We’re just looking to purchase products via the methods that are most satisfying to us.

Is there anything that you feel we are behind and need to catch up on, in terms of our thinking and philosophy?

Singapore has a notorious reputation for being extremely pragmatic and linear in its way of structuring and thinking. But the opportunity for those non-linear thinkers to bring that type of perspective to the economy is only going to increase in value because the linear thinkers are doing what machines can do very well. As we become a more successful society, we have to be able to use creativity and imagination. As the world sees more challenges, from climate issues to the growing wealth disparity, from labour utilization to artificial intelligence, it’s the non-linear thinkers who are adept at changing. And I think there's actually a big segment of the Singaporean population who have struggled to fit into the linear way of thinking, who need to be included... I worked with Steve Jobs for years and he had a reputation for being difficult to work with. But part of what made him particularly difficult was because he was incredibly balanced between logic and rationality and intuition and imagination. To succeed, you can’t have just one or the other. You have to have both.

This story was adapted from The Business Times. Click here to read the original story.

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