Do Apple Retail Employees Really Need Their Own Union?

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Some Apple retail employees are looking to unionize. Their initial group is small—28 followers on Twitter at the moment—but their message is Apple-like in its simplicity (see this video here): “Our time has come.”

As someone who worked in retail all throughout high school and college, I can certainly appreciate their plight. The pay sucks, the hours are long, the customers can be doughy sacks of crap, and the road to advancement is a long and slippery slope that few people have the wherewithal to stomach.

You’ll likely find no retail store in the U.S. where the employees haven’t talked about unionizing either jokingly or, in this case, seriously.

It wasn’t always this way—at least with electronics retailers. Back in the heady days of fat margins and complicated products that lasted more than a year before breaking down, we had a magic system called “commission.”

Now commission-based pay wasn’t a perfect system—customers got sold stuff they didn’t need, salespeople stabbed each other in the back, nobody made any money in the summer—but the fact was that, as a salesperson for an electronics retailer back then, if you educated yourself about the products you were selling and you worked hard, you could make a decent living.

And so you’d put up with the awful hours and dough-crap customers because it all directly affected your bottom line. Everyone loved working Sunday morning—Sunday morning—because the hoopleheads would come in waving the Sunday ad around, demanding to be sold whatever was featured therein.

So when I was a kid, I worked alongside full-grown, well-adjusted adults who had families. These guys weren’t managers, either. They sold stuff. And many of them made a better living than the store managers. But then margins began to shrink, technology became more disposable, and stores decided they didn’t want to pay people on commission any more.

Best Buy went off commission first and many of the talented salespeople quit. Then Circuit City went off commission and many of the talented salespeople quit. Then CompUSA went off commission and many of the salespeople quit. Note that I didn’t use the word “talented” because, by that time, the writing was on the wall, the commission percentages sucked anyway because the margins were so tiny, and most of the talent had already moved on. If you were one of the last remaining commissioned salespeople at CompUSA, I’m not talking about you, of course. You were a diamond in the rough.

Do you want to know which electronics retailer would be a perfect place for a commission-based payment system, even today? Apple.

Apple still has great margins (a rarity for consumer electronics) because it sells premium products and controls all of its own inventory channels—no middlemen. But Apple knows that a) people actually want to work there b) commission means paying out big bonuses and c) commissioned salespeople aren’t usually regarded in a positive light—a bunch of sneaky, slithery Apple salespeople doesn’t fit well with the company’s image.

You don’t hear many people who get paid based on how well they produce threatening to form unions, but the days of commissioned-based pay for selling consumer electronics are long gone. I can appreciate an Apple retail employee reading about how much money Apple’s raking in nowadays and wondering why he or she is only making $12 an hour, though.

So If this group is thinking of forming a union of Apple retail workers, I guess I applaud them, though I don’t think it’s going to work. I’m interested to see how it all plays out, of course. If they somehow manage to form a union and Apple doesn’t blow its lid about it, it’ll be something for the history books.

However, I’m guessing that those employees will simply be asked not to return to work. And even if every talented and dedicated Apple Store employee quit or got fired because of this, Apple could theoretically staff its stores with the same kids who work the floor at Best Buy and who worked the floors of Circuit City and CompUSA before the poo-poo hit the respective blades of those corporations’ mismanaged fans.

The big issue is that technology has been commoditized to the point where it sells itself, so most of it can be sold on razor-thin margins. And Apple products, even with their fat margins, sell themselves before you even step foot into a store. Is it a bonus that Apple Store employees are generally bright and helpful and know the products inside and out? Absolutely.

But do people need to be explained what an iPad is or what a MacBook does? Not really. Some of them need a little extra encouragement to buy one and some need to be shown how to use it after the sale, but the actual art of the sale as it pertains to selling consumer electronics is far less complicated than it used to be. Regular people just don’t ask about specs and features all that much any more and, again, most of the actual sale has been competed before you even leave the house.

If you look at the almost 700 reviews by Apple employees left on and you hone in on the reviews left by employees who work at Apple’s retail stores, you’ll notice the same basic complaints: It’s a stressful job, the hours are long, you get scheduled when you don’t want to work, management treats hourly employees like lesser humans, the pay sucks, you have to be on your feet all day, and on and on and on.

It could be a description of any retail job, really. The difference is that Apple is held to a higher standard because it’s so good at marketing its products that people think it’s an infallible company. Its motto, as this Apple Retail Workers Union that may or may not succeed points out, is, “At Apple, our most important resource, our soul, is our people.”

People, whether they work for Apple or not, want to believe that’s true. And maybe it’s true inside the hallowed halls of Apple HQ but I’m guessing there’s another unspoken motto that says, “Make more money than we did last quarter—the bigger the margins, the better.”

Down on the front lines of retail, it’s low pay, long hours, and not a whole lot of upside for hourly employees. Apple’s ace in the hole, though, is that it’s so good at marketing its products that people not only want to buy them, but they actually want to sell them, too.

And for every unhappy one, you’ll likely find plenty of happy retail employees working for Apple and plenty more to fill the positions of the ones who leave. Many Apple retail employees are also huge fans of Apple products, so it’s seemingly a worthwhile tradeoff for them to put up with all the downside that goes along with working in retail.

I had the same feeling when I took my first job selling computers (no commission) at Best Buy back in 1995. The hours were long and the pay was awful but I was making a little more than all my other friends and I was surrounded by computers all day, which made it all totally worth it.

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