How an Apple Store Grabs You … Subliminally

Apple reached a $2 trillion market valuation last summer, a clear marker of its tech prowess. But when you look at its retail store design, you see the company also excels at something else entirely: understanding people—and how to capture and manipulate their attention subliminally.

Apple retail interior design reflects, not-so-much technology, but a deep knowledge and respect for our biology and the hidden evolutionary traits that make us. With that biological foundation in place, Apple feeds the client precisely the stimuli needed to get the results that spur stratospheric success. Apple does all this without most people realizing it—capitalizing on the fact it understands human nature much better than most do.

Apple Store in Boston

For instance, above is a photo of the entry to the Apple store in downtown Boston taken last year; there is one over-arching theme driving its design and layout which has nothing to do with technology, but is all about our biology. Can you find it? Below is the same store, in the interior, in a photo from 2018. In 2021, its layout remains the same.

What’s the big design idea here? That people, even if on a mission to purchase a tech device, are most attracted to look for and focus on other people. They simply can’t help it. As a social species, our brain is hardwired for social engagement, designed to look for and focus on others, and take in faces. We do this automatically because this behavior secured our past survival and still does today. So, Apple makes it easy to see people entering the store in Boston and watch them moving throughout the space; seeing people makes it more likely a another person will follow them. As a social species, we’re essentially built for taking others in. Naturally, Apple places large faces of people on its devices and wall posters too, since no other pattern can draw human attention as fast. We subliminally attach to these mages, making us more likely to linger around them. And, no surprise, Apple came up with the idea for a glass staircase (patented by Steve Jobs in 2001); what else could get people to walk up two more flights in a retail space than a glass staircase where it’s so easy to watch others moving up and down?

Apple Store in Manhattan,
Apple Store in Manhattan with glass staircase, its design patented by Steve Jobs © Mathieu Thouvenin

It’s not just our visual bias for watching people that drives Apple design, it’s understanding other hidden human habits, like our bias for feeling that whatever we touch belongs to us. Ever wonder why Apple places so many products on tables without packaging in sight? By making its products so inviting to touch, we’re more likely to begin to feel we own them. This phenomenon is called the Endowment Effect; in past millennia, it helped secure our ancestors’ survival. Today, it may be doing us in, getting us to purchase far more than needed. “You can take the person out of the Stone Age… but you can’t take the Stone Age out of the person,” Nigel Nicholson, a UK psychologist noted in a Harvard Business Review article, ‘How Hardwired is Human Behavior?’

Apple stores use ‘The Endowment Effect’ to determine layout and drive sales

There is a huge irony here: How do you sell the most sophisticated tech-products on the planet today? By embracing the client’s most ancient and quintessential animal nature. Accept that humans haven’t changed as quickly as their technology; they can’t. Acknowledge our evolution and biology.

Other design fields would do well to follow suit; if you ever need a lesson refresher, or want to appreciate the strategy’s power, visit the local Apple store.

This entry was posted in Design, Neuroscience, People-centric Design, STEM. Bookmark the permalink.

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