We’ve been getting reports of Apple hiring changes for a while now, and they seem to be picking up. Beginning even before a roughly 25% wage hike a couple of months ago, there has been some changes being made at Apple Retail Stores with regards to staffing.

Today, Macrumors reports that it has also been getting wind of these changes, noting that Apple has begun laying off hires made in the last 6 months in the U.K., Canada and the U.S.. We’ve reached out to Apple Retail sources and they’ve confirmed that there has been some changes in hiring lately, and that hours are getting cut, but they had not seen any layoffs.

Specifically, they had heard that the 25% pay raises issued in June were the source of Apple’s tweaking hiring policies. There has been a reduction in hours for part-time employees and there are no new hiring events happening ‘at all’. The general scuttlebutt is that Apple is equalizing those pay raises by cutting employee hours and slowing hiring. We don’t know if that is actually what’s going on, but it’s definitely a sentiment going around among employees.

Apple’s Retail Store employee treatment was the focus of a recent New York Times article, part of its iEconomy series focusing on Apple, entitled ‘Apple’s Retail Army, Long on Loyalty but Short on Pay‘. We examined the numbers presented in that article and found that many of the comparisons made by the Times between employees of other companies like Costco and The Gap were a bit iffy, to say the least.

That being said, any equalizing of the balance books for Apple Retail might assuage the shareholders, but that’s not normally how Apple works. And there is almost assuredly an iPhone release coming up this fall, something that Apple normally stocks up on employees for, not the reverse.

This begs the question: Why would Apple cut back on Retail Store employees and hours in advance of an iPhone release?

Frankly, I’m at a bit of a loss to explain it.

Some possibilities, however, do come to mind:

Apple is getting ready to radically change the way that the Retail Stores operate.  Recent changes have seen Apple tweak the way that its stores work, and this may be a forecast of that expanding. The ‘self checkout’ process that Apple now uses in its Apple Store apps is one big thing that comes to mind. With the self checkout option, you can grab a product off the shelf, zap it with a barcode scanner built into the app and press a button to pay via your iTunes account. You then walk out of the store with your item, with no store staff interaction at all.

Employees I’ve spoken to about the system say that it does work for customers, but that it hasn’t been as widely used as it could be. Perhaps there’s a lack of customer education on the part of Apple, or maybe it wasn’t ready to push it as a viable shopping option. Now, however, it could be looking to promote this feature more aggressively,  so that only high-end items require employee assistance and nearly all others would be ‘self bought’. There is the potential, of course, for Apple Retail Stores to get NFC (Near Field Communication) support in the future, which would make this even easier.

It’s going to focus on selling items online directly, or for in-store pickup. In addition to the in-store self checkout option, new systems for recognizing when customers who are in stores for product pickup have ben put in place over the past several months. If you come into the store and open your Apple Store app, the store employees know that you’re there and can approach you to help you get checked out. Perhaps Apple sees its online numbers creeping up and the Retail Store numbers creeping down, although the quarter-over-quarter Retail numbers are still growing.

The central idea of the Genius Bar is expanding, becoming the primary reason for an Apple Retail Store to exist. We’ve seen some indications that Apple is looking to beef up the presence of its Genius Bar in some stores with an altered layout that extends the bar out onto the floor. And its recent Genius-focused commercials were targeted at customers, even if they were poorly executed. Apple knows the Genius Bar and its staff are the biggest advantages it has in the retail environment, and so do its competitors. Best Buy has already announced plans to make its new stores more ‘Apple-like‘ including a Solution Central staffed by Geek Squad employees.

Apple could be focusing on the Genius Bar, content to let its products ‘sell themselves’ with only ancillary assistance from sales floor employees.

This is just a blip, and Apple is retooling its hiring process. This could be a momentary pause, in which Apple is changing its hiring process in some way. Once it enacts the change, it could resume hiring efforts. Still, this wouldn’t explain the cutback in hours or the rumored layoffs that MacRumors reported. And it seems fairly late to begin hiring for a fall event, like the one that is supposedly happening on September 12th. Apple normally has a several-week-long training procedure that would eat up more than the month we have until the announcement and even the 10-day window afterwards before it’s actually in stores.

Because there isn’t a whole lot of information to go on, this has to be treated as speculation, but we’re confident in saying that there is actually something up with Retail Store staffing at the moment. What that is, exactly, isn’t clear, but we’ll keep our ears and eyes peeled.