Angela Ahrendts, CEO of British luxury retailer Burberry, has been tapped to serve as Apple's new retail chief. The selection fills a couple of holes at the company. This is a job that's simply been empty for a long time, and Apple's long had a serious deficit of women in the corporate ranks.
But if you want to know what this is really about, I think you need to look at comparative maps of where Burberry's retail stores and where Apple's retail stores are. Compared to Apple, Burberry's 66 retail locations in the United States is a relatively modest operation. But Apple has three stores in Hong Kong. Burberry has 15. Apple has eight stores in mainland China. Burberry has seven stores in Shanghai alone. Plus six more in Beijing. They're in Dalian, they're in Harbin, they're in Hangzhou, they're even in Urumqi.
Which is to say that Ahrendts looks like someone who can bring the Apple retail operation what it needs—knowledge of how to go really big in Asia.
The retail situation at Apple is a bit odd right now. Ron Johnson, who used to run it, left quite a while ago to run J.C. Penney. As his replacement, Tim Cook hired a guy named John Browett who used to run a British retail company. Their style looked like an odd fit for Apple's high-end, design-oriented sensibility, and Browett got fired pretty fast. Then Jerry McDougal, who looked like a leading internal candidate for the job, left in January. But despite the chaos at the top, Apple's retail stores are fine. Better than fine, in fact. They're some of the most successful stores in the world. On a per anything basis, they're a wild success.
But that really just means that the company ought to be opening more stores. Lots of them. Yet they've probably tapped out most of the best locations in the United States already (though I'd certainly make a case for a downtown DC store) and given the distribution of the world population and economic growth, that means the logical place for expansion is Asia. That means you want a CEO who knows the territory in Asia, and has some idea what is and isn't a good location in Kunming. Or at least knows how to find out. Ahrendts fits the bill: She's an American who's been running a highly identifiable upscale western brand and scaling up its retail presence in Asia. That's exactly what Apple needs from its retail division.