Apple on Tuesday announced the April departure of Angela Ahrendts, who has been senior vice president of retail for five years and led a bold brick-and-mortar expansion initiated by predecessor Ron Johnson. The company now operates 35 online stores and 506 retail stores on five continents.
Deirdre O'Brien, the company's senior vice president of people, will continue to lead talent development and Apple University, recruiting, employee relations and experience, business partnership, benefits, compensation and inclusion, and diversity. She's adding "retail" to her title and will take on Ahrendts' duties in an expanded role, according to a company press release.
O'Brien has been at Apple for three decades and will focus "on the connection between the customer and the people and processes that serve them," the company said.
While Johnson is credited with initiating the brick-and-mortar strategy that has been the backbone of Apple's hardware sales, including minimalist spaces conducive to product demos and customer education, Ahrendts has taken that to 11.
After helping return Burberry to its luxury stance as CEO of the label, Ahrendts arrived at Apple with a notion that the company's stores would be integral to its brand and should entail a shift in emphasis from hardware to community. Her vision includes stores as gathering spaces and hubs for creativity. New Apple stores — either those introduced anew or renovated in various locations around the globe — were all conceived with that approach in mind, and the company went so far as to drop the word "store" from its lexicon.
Ahrendts is leaving at what seems to be a new chapter for Apple, however. Her arrival from Burberry underscored the company's luxury ambitions, already enabled by its high price points and its repudiation of discounts. During her tenure the company unveiled its watch and a series of iPhones sporting ever-escalating price tags.
More recently, though, come signs that consumers may have reached their limit. Apple CEO Tim Cook shook Wall Street with his letter last month warning investors about a first quarter revenue miss. He blamed the slide on "economic weakness in some emerging markets [that] turned out to have a significantly greater impact than we had projected," especially in Greater China, but many took note that the trouble also sprang from "fewer iPhone upgrades."
In comments emailed to Retail Dive after Cook's note, Wells Fargo analysts said that their research leads them "to believe that demand weakness [for iPhone], coupled with channel inventory burn-off, could persist for a few quarters." It remains to be seen what that means for Apple's retail operations under O'Brien.