“Which is your favourite Apple store?” Deirdre O’Brien asks with a curious smile. O’Brien is the senior vice president of Retail at Apple and at this point, we are having a casual chat at Apple Orchard Road after she has made her rounds in the store. It’s a tough question, and one that is almost impossible to answer. I’m trawling through my most recent memories—of stores I’ve visited personally and those I’ve seen arresting visuals of online—and still find myself stumped.
Apple Tower Theatre in Los Angeles comes to mind quickly, for its beautifully ornate structure that was once part of a historic theatre. The regal arched stairway with its bronze handrails, flanked by marble Corinthian columns, is enough to stupefy most people who walk in. Apple Piazza Liberty’s modern, dramatic fountains is a close contender—a stunning design feature located just off one of the most popular pedestrian streets in Milan.
Finally, I settle on one I know well and visit frequently enough to understand its remarkable appeal. Apple Marina Bay Sands, a sleek sphere constructed entirely on water, was the talk of the town when it opened in 2020 for its unparalleled views of the city and an oculus at the apex of the dome which allows a generous amount of light in. It is also the only floating dome Apple store in the world.
“I think we have some of the best stores in the world here in Singapore. It’s something that is truly awe-inspiring,” says O’Brien, nodding in agreement. “When you come up that escalator and stand in the store, it’s incredible. We want people to feel the same care we put into our products in our stores—and so we look for opportunities to create stores that are unique and special.”
O’Brien has spent the last three decades at Apple. When she joined in 1988 as a fresh graduate, she scheduled production lines of the Macintosh Plus and the Macintosh SE. “It taught me the importance of good teamwork and a focus on excellence,” she muses. She went on to hold numerous roles in the supply chain, before moving out of operations to helm the People team five years ago. A year after that, Apple added Retail to O’Brien’s portfolio, where she focuses on the connection between customers and the people and processes that serve them.
With over 500 stores around the world and a brilliant online store, O’Brien’s job proves to be no easy task, but is one she is wholly passionate about. Apart from a seamless shopping experience, she believes constant innovation in surprising and delighting customers has to be at the forefront of retail. Today at Apple is one such pillar, which Apple cleverly uses as a platform to connect with their customers. These daily complimentary sessions aim to impart skills to just about anyone who is willing to learn—and it includes everything from photography and music, to illustration and coding.
“It allows you to spend time in the store, speaking and interacting with some of the most amazing musicians or photographers. We’re making sure we create a space for people to really go deep and learn, be inspired by something they’re seeing, or discover a talent they didn’t know they had,” explains O’Brien. “We also work hard to connect with the community through these programmes, like partnering with different organisations and having underrepresented communities come and learn new skills.”
Apple’s emphasis on brick-and-mortar stores is intriguing in the age of online sales, but O’Brien trusts that the in-person experience and having a meaningful conversation with an Apple Genius or retail staff is part and parcel of caring for the community. Their recent store openings in Asia builds upon this ethos. Apple welcomed a new store in South Korea’s dynamic Gangnam district at the end of March, and launched their first stores in India in Mumbai and New Delhi in April. The two stores in India employ a total of more than 220 retail staff to serve anyone who pops in, which the people-loving O’Brien considers true success.
“There are two measures of success for me, and they’re both tied to people. One is that we have made a difference in our customers’ lives. That motivates me personally; it motivates our teams, and gives us a strong sense of purpose,” O’Brien says with a chuckle. “The other measurement of success for me is that our teams feel supported and cared for—and they are here and can do the best work of their lives. I’ve been here a long time, and I feel this is an incredibly special place.”
Visit Apple’s online store here.