The iridescent wrapping is now gone, and Apple’s Fifth Avenue “Cube” retail store in New York City will reopen its doors tomorrow, September 20th, at 8AM ET to coincide with the release of the iPhone 11, 11 Pro, 11 Pro Max, and Apple Watch Series 5. The location has been closed and under renovation since 2017; Apple moved into a temporary space right next door for the interim and kept to the cube’s 24/7/365 operating hours.
This morning, Apple invited media to visit the store, with designers, architects, and retail staff on hand to discuss the reimagined space, the various Today at Apple programs that will be available to customers at the Fifth Avenue store, and more. The rebuilt store is now nearly twice as large as before, and the ceilings have been raised substantially.
Apple might have several other locations in Manhattan, but the cube is the iconic Apple Store in New York City, and the company spared no expense with renovations. The old underground store was demolished, and Apple started from scratch with the help of architecture firm Foster and Partners. The plaza surrounding the cube was also redone, with 62 circular frosted skylights beaming natural light down into the store below. To the left and right of the cube are a total of 18 of what Apple calls “sky lenses,” which are the shiny metal seats that also happen to provide a bird’s-eye view down into the store.
Apple has added two new entrances to the store, so not everyone needs to come in through the cube’s front doors and down the spiral staircase (or elevator) anymore — though I’m sure tourists will still overwhelmingly go for the main entrance. The staircase is now made from stainless steel instead of glass.
Besides all the natural light, the ceiling also features tunable white LEDs that will automatically move between warm and cooler tones based on the time of day to make everything feel less “inside” and artificial.
But the cube still very much looks and feels like an Apple Store circa 2019 — and not everyone is going to love that. Though the company’s retail division is now led by longtime Apple executive Deirdre O’Brien, former retail boss Angela Ahrendts no doubt steered the vision for Fifth Avenue before departing the company in April. Jony Ive was also involved in the new Fifth Avenue design. It shares the same “community space” vibe — yes, with plenty of trees and foliage throughout — that Apple has been bringing to its stores since 2016. There’s a huge display and seating for presentations and classes.
As with other flagship Apple locations, I get the impression that things here will feel a little chaotic. The basic task of going in, buying something, and getting out will likely devolve into frustration if you don’t know where the Express Checkout table is. Let me quote from what John Gruber wrote about the Apple retail experience earlier this year at Daring Fireball:
I’ve disliked the experience of buying stuff at the Apple Store ever since they did away with queues for checking out. I just want to get in line, wait my turn, pay, and leave. Instead, the way to check out at an Apple Store is to wander around until you get the attention of an employee who has one of the handheld checkout iPod Touches. This can be maddening. My wife refuses to shop at an Apple Store for this reason. I know you can use the Apple Store app to check yourself out, but I don’t like it. Part of the reason Apple’s stores are too crowded is that people are wandering around trying to pay for things.
And getting technical support at Apple Stores is terrible now. In the old days you could just walk in with a broken or otherwise problematic device and get an appointment at the Genius Bar within the hour. Now, the Genius Bar is booked for days in advance — sometimes close to a week. In some ways that’s inevitable — Apple is way more popular now than it was pre-iPhone. But inevitable or not, the result is that getting support at an Apple Store now stinks. And frankly, the technical acumen of the Genius Bar staffers is now hit-or-miss.
The new cube doesn’t really solve for any of that. It’s very possible that customer satisfaction at the Apple store will improve under O’Brien who was on hand to greet media during today’s reintroduction and tour of the store. People seem to genuinely enjoy the Today at Apple classes on offer. But while Apple Fifth Avenue is now bigger, grander, and a more pleasant place to spend time, it’s not marking some new beginning for Apple retail.
The problems raised by Gruber and many others still exist. Checking out might prove to be a hassle at times, though Apple is quietly making changes to slowly improve on the shopping experience. The new Apple Watch Studio is effectively replicated in store, letting customers choose their preferred size, case material, and band and purchase their ideal design as one combo with everything in the same box. There’s a dedicated room for testing out the HomePod. And as an ode to the old days, Apple added an AirPods display that depicts the earbuds as music notes matching those from the classic Think Different TV commercials.
Another way Apple will try to keep things running smoothly is with sheer resources: the Fifth Avenue location now employs nearly 900 people compared to the 300 workers who were there when it first opened in 2006. Apple says the staff collectively speaks 36 languages, with “most” employees being bilingual. The Genius Bar has doubled in size and now spans the entire length of the store, which should hopefully mean appointments will be a little easier to come by if you run into a tech emergency.
Check out the rest of our photos of Apple Fifth Avenue.