Apple, you can’t say you weren’t warned about your new retail boss

Apple’s (s AAPL) rapid-fire decision to backtrack on cutting staff in its retail stores may look like a rare misfire for the company. But for anybody reading the runes, it’s something more than that: it’s evidence of a significant strategic mistake perpetrated by CEO Tim Cook.

The man responsible for the decision to experiment with a new “staffing formula” that cut employee hours and fired new hires is British retail veteran John Browett. He was hired earlier this year, after an exhaustive search, to take over the reins from Ron Johnson. And Browett’s approach to “bloated” staffing caused such consternation that Apple was forced to make a rare apology and admit that the changes were a mistake.

”Making these changes was a mistake and the changes are being reversed. … Our employees are our most important asset and the ones who provide the world-class service our customers deserve.”

Remember when Cook unveiled Browett as his first senior hire after taking the CEO job? Back in January, I wrote about the appointment and noted Browett’s experience at pile-em-high, sell-em-cheap retailers — a philosophy very much at odds with Apple’s.

As well as running electronics retail conglomerate DSG, which runs 1,200 large but not exactly liked stores in Britain, I pointed out his other connections and experience:

Browett cut his teeth with Tesco, the world’s third-largest retailer and a dominant force in British supermarket retailing. He was the man responsible for building Tesco’s online presence, creating a leading web-based grocery outlet and delivery service, and he also expanded the company’s ranges way beyond food. He’s also been on the board of EasyJet, the low-cost airline that became famous for its cheap and cheerful approach to flying, for the past five years.

Sure, Ron Johnson had made his name at Target(s TGT), but it was hard to see how Browett’s cost-cutting approach meshed with Apple’s approach. And at the time, defending the appointment, Cook himself stepped up and said that “our retail stores are all about customer service” and that Browett “shares that commitment like no one else we’ve met.”

At the time, to anybody who had customer-level experience of the empires that Browett commanded, that rang false. Today, it looks like a bit of a joke.

The pressure’s surely going to be on him now. But he’s only doing what many of us expected — and it will be interesting to see how Cook responds.