The iPhone is omnipresent and many of us will have bought ours from an Apple store. But the tech giant is now spending hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps much more, revamping its stores in an apparent effort to persuade us not to buy a thing.

In the future, when going into an Australian Apple store, you might see as many people taking part in workshops, asking for advice or even just catching up on emails as buying actual products.

That's the seemingly counterintuitive aim of top Apple executive Angela Ahrendts who this week announced the rollout of one of the key steps in her plan to turn the stores into what she dubs "town squares" full to the brim with Millennials.

Speaking to at the tech giant's Cupertino headquarters in Silicon Valley, Ahrendts, Apple's retail head, said one noticeable element was Genius Bars were being ditched, replaced by "Genius Groves". Shaded by indoor trees, not just pretty, they have a cunning second role.


The company insists the new look is about prioritising the "human experience" above buying tech, but a retail expert has said the new store formats have another goal - to get more people "hooked" to brand Apple.

The stakes are high with the Californian company on Tuesday announcing its revenue was down 5 per cent due to falling iPhone sales.

And plans to bring the flashy store concept to Australia are being hampered by a struggle to build a new global flagship in the heart of Melbourne.

"The physical stores are Apple's largest products. They are the hardware and what happens inside is the software. So this is the biggest software release for retail," Ahrendts said.

Today at Apple

That "software" is a program called Today at Apple. A series of free in-store sessions at every store using the firm's products which cover everything from coding for kids to creating drum solos and guided walks to master architectural photography - think Bunnings workshops for tech. In Australia there will be 1000 hours of workshops each week.

No iPad or iPhone? No problem, the company will lend you one.

A beta version of Today at Apple has been in stores for around a year which particularly appealed to under-35s and people with young families, the firm observed. This has now been expanded with 60 new sessions launched this week built around three levels — skills, walks and labs.

"Think of skills, walks and labs, as Spanish 1, Spanish 2, Spanish 3," Ahrendts said.

Workshops on music, photography and health and fitness are branded as Today at Apple. Photo / Supplied
Workshops on music, photography and health and fitness are branded as Today at Apple. Photo / Supplied

But while the sessions might be free, isn't it all just a slick sales patter wrapped up as an altruistic education program? Surely the aim, at the end of the day, is to sell more iPhones? Ahrendts laughed and gave a shrug but insisted to it's really about "inspiring learning".

"When (Apple founder) Steve Jobs hired his first team members he told them you're not allowed to sell and there's no quotas, no commission — it's not a typical retailer.

"Our job is to enrich lives and you do that through the lens of education, by telling something they don't know, because that's inspiring."

Nobody fails their Today at Apple course. The company stressed that even at the more advanced "labs" the aim is that everyone leaves feeling they've achieved something. The sessions are undoubtedly upbeat with a mantra of "inspiration, participation, celebration".

Town squares and trees

Ahrendts, who was recently ranked 12th on Fortune magazine's most powerful women ranking arrived at Apple in 2014 after serving as CEO of high-end retailer Burberry. She has made changes to stores to bring in Today at Apple.

"We knew what we wanted to do so then we had to redesign the store to accommodate it."

She has dubbed the new format a "town square" where people linger and learn as much as shop.

"80 per cent of people have gone to before they come into a store so they already have that deep learning in the products. But is a 2D experience; when you come into a store that's 3D. If you're coming to the store, we're assuming you want a much more human experience," she said.

A grove of trees at the Apple store in San Francisco muffles the hubbub from the genius area. Photo / Supplied
A grove of trees at the Apple store in San Francisco muffles the hubbub from the genius area. Photo / Supplied

In the biggest new stores the space is now dominated by the "forum". Apple calls this space a "meeting place for the local community" which will host the workshops and talks. A huge screen overlooks tables and wooden boxes for participants to perch on. There are no products on display aside for those used in the sessions.

There are other changes. Older stores were all cold glass and steel, newer branches temper this with warmer wood. The clutter of accessories has been tucked away out of sight; in revamped stores just about the only accessories visible from the street are some artfully arranged phone covers.

And the Genius Bars have seemingly vanished. That's where the new trees come in, said Ahrendts.

"In a normal store the Genius Bar was crowded, so we've separated it. Where we've put trees in the new stores it's an area we call the 'Genius Grove'. It's behind a wall so you can hear people and the trees take the noise down."

Even the planters the trees are in have another purpose as comfy seating. Apple chief designer Jonathan Ive designed them so staff and customers could sit side-by-side if they wished, rather than on either side of a long desk.

Apple's Australian road hump

It's not cheap. Apple wouldn't tell how much the Today at Apple and store refits program would cost but financial website Motley Fool estimated it would be in the "hundreds of millions of dollars" a year. Increase that by many times if you include the cost of building shiny new stores or taking over historic buildings.

But Apple has hit a road hump in bringing a new global flagship store to Australia, full of all the new kit. Planned for Melbourne's Federation Square it was to be just one of five worldwide.

But a backlash over giving part of an actual town square to become a private "town square" has ruffled feathers. A similar plan to build a flagship in a much-loved Stockholm park has now been nixed.

QUT retail expert Dr Gary Mortimer said the new store concept tapped into the psyche of Generation Z and Millennials.

"They're the most tech-savvy consumers we've ever seen and they're looking for authentic experiences and are passionate about brands," he said.

Despite the sales downturn, he said Apple would be loath to discount its products to compete with cut-price smartphones. Rather, its aim was to lock in customer loyalty.

He likened Apple to athleisure retailer Lululemon which organises run clubs and offers free yoga lessons as well as selling joggers.

"Apple builds communities exceptionally well. They engage with customers and doing these almost TED talks and showing them how to use the product creates excitement and, naturally, people may buy the product," Mortimer said.

"However, it's less about walking out with the product and more about building loyalty and brand equity. But when you're hooked in, you're hooked in for life."

Ahrendts said the new stores reflected the $7 billion new Apple Park head office.

"As you walk around Apple Park, it's the same trees in the same planters as the store, the same furniture and rugs.

"It's all the same. We want the team and the customer to know this one Apple."

- The reporter travelled to Cupertino with Apple.