CUPERTINO -- Apple (AAPL) has hired Burberry Chief Executive Angela Ahrendts to head up its retail division, a move that signals the tech giant won't compromise on elegance and luxury even as it tries to expand into overseas markets and attract more middle-income consumers.

Apple announced Monday that Ahrendts will join the company in the spring as senior vice president of retail and online stores, where she will oversee store expansion and operation as well as retail design efforts. Ahrendts' hire fills a yearlong vacancy and brings much-needed leadership and stability to Apple stores, which have been without a top executive since former retail chief John Browett was canned last October, experts said Tuesday.

Ahrendts will become the only top-level woman executive at the company, reporting directly to CEO Tim Cook, and analysts expect her salary to be one of the most generous Apple has ever doled out. Apple did not release her compensation.

Her move from Burberry to Apple gives investors the much-needed assurance that Apple has plans to take retail and design to the next level.

"For Apple to convince her to leave, she must have pretty strong faith in where she thinks the company is going,"said A.M. "Toni" Sacconaghi Jr., a senior research analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Ahrendts' departure from U.K.-based Burberry is a demotion, if only in job title, and pulls her away from one of her greatest professional successes. Ahrendts is credited with Burberry's turnaround from a stale clothing line to one of the most recognizable luxury brands in the world, sported by celebrities and mentioned in one of rapper Jay-Z's most popular tunes.

Ahrendts has made no secret of her admiration for Apple, and in a media interview in 2010 she called the company a leader in design and innovation that Burberry looked up to.

In a statement released Monday by Apple, she said: "I have always admired the innovation and impact Apple products and services have on people's lives and hope in some small way I can help contribute to the company's continued success and leadership in changing the world."

Apple has more than 360 retails stores, and is adding about 30 to 40 per year, most of them outside the U.S. Among Ahrendts' first tasks will be to improve Apple's performance in China, where Apple sales have slowed. The company has just eight stores in that country.

Ahrendts has considerable experience in China, where Burberry is one of the leading luxury fashion brands, outperforming others through an active social media presence and digital marketing strategy.

Apple employees have complained of layoffs and having their hours cut, and some experts say customer service at the stores has suffered. Bringing customer service back up to the high quality it used to have is one of the tasks Ahrendts will face.

"If you go into Tiffany's or you go into a Burberry or you go into a Chanel, people will come to help you, and no one is selling you," said Robert Passikoff, branding expert and founder and president of Brand Keys. "That was always the experience of the Apple store."

The new hire also signals Apple's move toward more wearable gadgets, which may expand to include more jewelry and head pieces, said Danielle Levitas, a senior analyst at IDC. Tasteful design, she said, will be a critical part of weather or not Apple succeeds in that market.

"What they need is someone like (Ahrendts) to say 'No woman is every going to wear that,'" Levitas said. "They're not just making tech gadgets for tech geeks."

But the fusion of luxury fashion with iPhones and iPads leads some analysts to question Apple's commitment to serving a lower-income market, despite the company's promises of making cheaper gadgets.

"This signals that they are not going to cheapen the brand just to expand their market," Levitas said.

Apple has long been criticized for its price points, which are often out of reach for many U.S. consumers and most in the developing world.

Burberry handbags sell for $2,000 to $3,000 -- not exactly pocketbook-friendly. But Ahrendts brings with her a familiarity with luxury retail marketing that will help preserve Apple's image as the must-have tech brand.

"If you feel as a consumer that you're better than other people because you have some of these things ... it's worth the premium to go buy it," said Roger Kay, president of Massachusetts-based Endpoint Technologies Associates "Ahrendts is coming to Apple to make sure it remains a premium brand."

In a statement posted on the Apple website, Cook said Ahrendts "shares our values and our focus on innovation, and she places the same strong emphasis as we do on the customer experience. She has shown herself to be an extraordinary leader throughout her career and has a proven track record."

Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.

Apple's New Retail Head
Angela Ahrendts
Current Position: CEO of Burberry since 2006
New Position: Senior vice president of retail and online stores for Apple, reporting directly to CEO Tim Cook, starting spring 2014
Past: President of Donna Karan International, executive vice president of Liz Claiborne
Age: 53
Hometown New Palestine, Ind.
Education: Ball State University, Indiana