Best Buy will probably follow CompUSA into Outer Darkness

Much hullabaloo has been made of the supposed ’shocking’ news that CompUSA was closing all its stores and officially going out of business. To quote Jane’s Addiction, “Nothing’s Shocking”.

I wrote a complaint letter to CompUSA several years ago before they closed their Melbourne store (along with dozens of others) to let them know about the shenanigans going on at that store. In it, I discussed nearly every pitfall and problem that the store had, and what they needed to do to turn it around. I wish, for the life of me, I could find that letter, but I think it was on a laptop whose hard drive I since reformatted. I had virtually predicted its inevitable decline and, yes, I would like credit for that now that they have been crushed under the weight of their stupidity.

So, since I can’t find that letter, I thought I’d take this moment of silence to publicly ‘out’ Best Buy and get some credit for its eventual demise. In October 2006, Best Buy sent me a survey email that they induced me to fill out by offering some kind of reward. I so rarely fill out surveys (here’s one reason why), but somehow the HDTV (or whatever they tricked me with) and my generally warm feelings that day must have caused me to go through the umpteen-zillion bubble questions.

But like most surveys, I didn’t like the questions. So, I typed out a small diatribe for the comments box. When I attempted to cut-and-paste it into their comment box, it rejected me for posting more than 3,000 characters. To give you an idea, how little that is, this post is over 1,600 characters so far right here. So, they basically wanted a few brief comments with no in-depth feedback. So, I emailed the media relations department my comments directly. Although I got a wonderful auto-responder email, I never actually heard back from BestBuy - and they certainly haven’t heeded any of the advice I had.

Now, all that would be well and good if you suppose that BestBuy has been busy making improvements, tightening their budgets, working on clever ads, or coming up with ways to be more competitive and clever in today’s market. Not only has there been no evidence of any of that at the store level, but now Best Buy has been found to be spending investor’s time and money by harassing bloggers and threatening to sue them when they dare to report about the existence of sarcastic parody BestBuy shirts for sale by a group called Improv Everywhere. The shirts weren’t really the issue, quite likely. BestBuy was just miffed that 80 people from the improv group, wearing blue izod shirts and khaki pants, strolled into a Manhattan BestBuy store over a short period of time until they were all in the store. They looked like Best Buy employees (sans name tag). It caused mass confusion and chaos, and the police were eventually called even though the group had done nothing other than to dress similar to Best Buy employees. While the improv group clearly has a bit more time on their hands than perhaps is fair (I want some of that extra time, too!), and they seem to do dorky stuff like this all the time, what really makes it funny is the complete overreaction of BestBuy management.

It’s even more bizarre that BestBuy’s management, with the helpful cooperation of an apparently overpaid legal department, actually thought they could sue a blogger for just reporting that the shirts were for sale. Some of those lawyers are getting too much money for too little research. BestBuy eventually apologized for their gaff, but not after exerting precious time and energy toward a fruitless pursuit of it - rather than pursuing profits.

So, it seemed aptly appropriate to call them to task, publicly, for their absolute shame and failure as a company to do what any fool in retail should know how to do: run a competitive retail outlet. Stop worrying about bloggers and improv groups, and start paying attention to the basics of retail.

Here then is my original survey marks from October 2006. If Best Buy goes out of business in the next five years, I want full credit this time.

Only reason I gave employees such low marks is as follows: I’ve been going to this store since the week it opened (a decade ago?). I go on the average of once/week, sometimes with a friend, but usually alone. I do a lot of window shopping, and probably make a purchase about every 3rd or 4th time I’m there. Sometimes it is small (a CD), but usually it is at least $50 - a piece of software, a memory stick/card. I’ve bought nearly every hard drive I’ve owned in the past ten years at Best Buy (Western Digital fan) and I wait for them to go on sale. I make my own PC’s (I own four - 3 desktops and a laptop), so I’m usually buying something for one of them.

Here’s the main problem with Best Buy (and maybe retail in general). Everyone assumes I’m an idiot. I’d love it if an employee would just nod and say, “Hey, what’s up?”. Instead, I get the typical “new employee mantra” of “Can I help you find something, sir?”. Seriously, what sort of idiot can’t find something in Best Buy? If I was 75 years old with a walker with a “I’m lost” look on my face… maybe. But, I’m a 37 year old white male with glasses - I couldn’t possibly look any more geeky. I never recognize any of the toadies that badger me with that stupid question.

I’ve joked with friends that it seems they wait until you are reading the back of a product box when they ask you if they can help you find something. I responded a few months ago to one “geek squad” guy that yes, he could help me find my place in the paragraph since he interrupted me. I’ve also sent other pestering employees on wild goose chases (i.e. “Yes, I’m really interested in an analog MP3 player and all these are digital - can you go ask your manager?”). I hate to do that, since they are usually just repeating the corporate mantra. I never see the same employee twice, so it seems like only the new folks do it, get tired of it after a few weeks, and quit.

Of course, the absolute worst is when you approach a few employees who are busy doing some reshelving or stocking and when you get close enough to hear them yak about World of Warcraft (or some other important subject - like MySpace!) that they turn to you, usually while you are trying to view the product they are blocking with their bodies, and say curtly “Can we help you find something, sir?”. Ugh… how annoying! They say it like I’ve interrupted their little high school pow wow.

I’m not a sir… I’m a person. Sir is not a way to refer to people you don’t know. All retail stores do this because nobody in corporate gives them any permission to be people, to be personable. For once, I’d love an employee to say, “I noticed nobody was helping you and we’ve been a little busy. Are you cool or can I do anything for you?”. See the difference? Can I do anything for you? What I supposed to say to “Can I help you find anything, Sir?”. Should I say, “Uh, where are, duh…. the microwaves… uh, duh… where is…, duh…, the new Harry Connick CD?”. Come on.

Of course, as you know, few of the employees would be well-versed to find anything remotely challenging anyway, so it is a loaded question. But they could do something… like move the stupid ladders out of the way that are left out all over the store constantly. There must be a 4:1 ratio of employees to ladders at Best Buy. It’s been nearly 20 years since I worked retail - and granted, we didn’t have “big box” stores back then, but we would have had our heads turned inside-out by management if we left a ladder out on the floor. I’ve seen the same ladder sitting in the same place week after week at times. I’m usually in the store about 30 minutes and no one is using it. The liability of some toddler climbing up one (that chain ain’t gonna stop a 3 year old) is one thing. But the inconvenience to customers is another. The ladders inevitably always seem to be blocking something I want to look at, too. I just move them and let the employees give me dirty looks. I don’t blame them - if their corporate office required as a “standard” to return ladders to the back when complete, I’m sure they would do it - and chat about Star Wars less. But, obviously the higher up folks at Best Buy aren’t concerned about image, safety, and product display. If I was a product rep and found a ladder sitting in front of my products for 30-60 minutes (or longer!), I’d scream bloody murder.

My last small complaints are as follows (and then I’ll say something good): that there seems to be a general slothfulness in keeping equipment ready for demo. The musical instrument section (albeit a small section of the overall store) is notoriously “unplugged”, even though there are always a chunk of blue shirts hanging around there. Most of the keyboards are always unplugged. Why sell them? Sure, I’ll probably buy my next keyboard from Sam Ash, but Best Buy doesn’t even stand a chance of stealing that business from them when I can’t even try them out. Either get serious and try selling them or just use that space for something profitable and move some product.

Speaking of which, since the new store design (of which I wasn’t too impressed - and which made Best Buy look another Circuit City or Office Depot), but there seems to be dearth of product depth - at least in the computer area which is where I go mostly. As such I’ve been spending a bit more time at CompUSA (literally walking distance away) and at Bits Computer (a little hardware store nearby), because, other than hard drives, Best Buy is just looking a lot more like an Audio/Video store - and at least for me, that’s really not my thing.

If you want to be known as a tech store, start carrying some innovative products. You can start by carrying Apple products (not just iPod accessories which even Radio Shack carries) - and I’m not even an Apple guy! You can also start by opening up the depth on LCD monitors (terrible selection and terribly displayed usually - all small ones, too), the depth of memory selection (don’t get me started on this one - it used to be a bit better), and the depth of software. In fact, the software section (not games - software) is so drab and dull I almost fall asleep… Quicken, Quickbooks, Money, Office, Office help, Screensavers….zzzzzzzzz… There’s lots of cool stuff out there - you are letting the net steal business from you. Letting it.

Anyway, here’s the good things about Best Buy and that store in particular. Great location. Convenient. Good hours (like being open later on Fri/Sat). I like the relatively new instant rebates - wish there were more (instead of mail-in - ugh!) and the aisles aren’t cramped (like CompUSA - at least the CompUSA in West Melbourne - I went to one in Orlando that was pretty big and roomy). But for crying out loud… pack those shelves with product. There is so much wasted space, you could hide bodies in that store and no one would know until the corpse started to rot.

Doubt anything will change though. Retail is sort of weird isolationist world where innovation and good ideas are trampled for the sake of ease and tradition. Best Buy used to be a “wow”… now it is a “ho-hum”… if it keeps up the laurel resting, it might be a “chapter 13″ some day. I hope not, but I haven’t seen much to impress me. Tiger Direct gets nearly half my business because I don’t want to wait 6 months to a year to see an interesting product in Best Buy (if ever).

Related posts

Why not leave a comment below and continue the conversation, or subscribe to my feed and get articles like this delivered automatically to your feed reader. If you don't have a feed reader, I recommend using Google Reader to start. It's free and easy. Otherwise, you can always have these articles delivered to your email inbox every day. Click here to sign up.

No comments yet.

Leave a comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Your e-mail address is never displayed.
HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>