Apple Stores are prospering, but the SVP of Retail slot seems to be a tough sell

It’s hard to go anywhere but down when you’ve been a senior executive at the world’s largest and most valuable consumer company, but former Apple retail VP John Browett seems to have done pretty well, considering the circumstances: he’s just landed the CEO job at Monsoon Accessorize, a U.K.-based purveyor of inexpensive jewelry and handbags. He moved from overseeing Apple’s 401 stores in 14 countries to 1,000 stores in 74 countries. Meanwhile, his appointment reminds us, the world’s most lucrative retail stores still have no official leader. How can that be?

Well, to begin with, they’re not really hurting as a result. At least that’s what CEO Tim Cook explained during a Q&A session at Goldman Sachs’ analyst conference this week. Cook was effusive in his description of the stores, calling the in-store experience “Prozac” for him when he’s having a bad day.

And it’s not hard to see why they make him so happy. The average stores pulls in $50 million in yearly revenue, he said Tuesday. And the stores make about $6,000 per square foot of retail space — twice what next-closest retailer, Tiffany & Co. does.

And, as this chart from Horace Dediu at Asymco shows below, Apple Stores are more popular than ever:

Apple Stores visitors 2013 Asymco

Cook said there were 370 million people that walked through the doors of Apple stores during 2012 — the most ever. Besides just being a place where shoppers can pick up an iPhone or MacBook, the stores function as showrooms for the Apple experience, customer service centers, and places to educate new iPhone or Mac users.

It’s been almost four months since Browett’s exit, and there’s still no SVP of Retail. Cook has been overseeing the group, while Apple is said to be still actively looking for Browett’s replacement. It needs someone who knows retail, understands the value of Apple’s brand, and has international experience, since that’s where most of Apple’s sales growth is coming from. Apple’s at the top of its game in retail in these respects, but apparently the SVP slot remains an extraordinarily hard position to fill. Apple doesn’t appear to be looking inward: longtime VP of Retail Jerry McDougal recently left the company after presumably being passed over for the position. It appears instead to be looking outside the company again, despite the bad experience last time.

In all, the toughest thing about Apple retail is, as we learned from the Browett episode, that it’s extremely high profile with almost no leeway to make significant change. Whoever Cook brings in will likely have to accept simply managing the model that’s already in place; which for the ambitious type Apple usually hires, is probably a tough sell.