The post-Ron Johnson era did not begin well for Apple. Earlier this year, the company ousted Johnson’s successor, John Browett, as head of its retail operations following a series of rare and embarrassing cockups. Initially, those missteps appeared to be largely operational, fomenting unrest and criticism among Apple Store employees: Freezing hiring and other moves intended to scale back payroll expenses, deferring facilities repairs. But new research from analytics firm ForeSee suggest that Browett’s brief tenure at Apple may have had some negative effects on the customer-facing side of its retail operations as well. Could that really be the case?
According to ForeSee’s annual Holiday E-Retail Satisfaction Index, compiled from 24,000 customer surveys gathered between Thanksgiving and Christmas, customer satisfaction with Apple’s online store slipped three points this year, falling to 80 from the 83 points it captured in 2011. That decline was among the biggest Foresee charted this year, and it left Apple with its lowest score on the firm’s consumer satisfaction index in four years. (Ironically, J.C. Penney — where Ron Johnson is now CEO — was another of Foresee’s big decliners this holiday season).
Why the sudden drop? There’s no simple explanation, though it’s easy enough to lay the blame on Browett. Following his tenure, the company not only forfeited its second place ranking on the Foresee index, but fell out of the top five as well. Sure, the decline was measured after his ouster, but not so far after that he doesn’t bear some responsibility. That said, there are obviously other factors at work here as well.
ForeSee’s surveys measure four elements of customer satisfaction: Merchandise appeal, competitiveness of price, Web site functionality and Web site content. Clearly, not all of those elements were under Browett’s control. And it’s not evident where, exactly, Apple suffered declines. ForeSee says only that “Web site functionality” is a top priority for improvement at Apple. It’s worth noting, though, that that functionality isn’t so different from what it was last year, when Apple placed in ForeSee’s top five.
Keeping that in mind — and our perceptions of price and product appeal, as well — Apple’s diminished customer satisfaction score seems more the result of consumer caprice than anything else. Have the company’s prices and the appeal of its products really changed that drastically from 2011 when it scored higher on the ForeSee index?
“The luster of Apple is fading a bit,” Larry Freed, president and CEO of ForeSee told AllThingsD. “Keeping up with consumer’s rising expectations of the online customer experience is no easy task, but not keeping up can lead to decline in loyalty, word of mouth and revenue growth. In particular, even though Apple gets top dollar for their products, price is an area weakness for the company when it comes to satisfaction. Apple’s site might be due for some changes, and the usefulness, convenience and variety of features on the site presents the biggest opportunity for Apple to improve the customer experience.”
Apple did not respond to a request for comment.