12 years ago I got my first job. It was part time selling computers at my local Best Buy in Toledo, OH. I was an incredibly shy kid and as a result I almost didn't get hired. The sales manager at the time asked me to sell him a pen in an interview, a task I found incredibly difficult. I didn't know how to sell, all I knew was that I loved computers and I loved browsing the aisles at Best Buy looking at the newest stuff. I wanted to work there, partly because it looked cool, and partly because, well, there was a great employee discount.
I got lucky. That store actually had two sales managers and Larry Neal, the other manager, saw something in me that I honestly didn't see in myself. Larry taught me that even if you're a shy, introverted person you can put on a persona of a salesman. I went on to be a pretty successful part timer at that store. I made MVP a couple times and consistently hit my numbers.
So you could say that I owe Larry and Best Buy a debt of gratitude. That job was my first chance to learn how to interact with strangers. It taught me how to make a convincing argument, how to present myself as helpful and sincere when working with people. I've learned a lot at every job I've ever had but I probably grew more as a person working for Best Buy than any job I've had since.
I tell this story to make it clear than I'm not a Best Buy "hater." Quite the opposite in fact. I used to love opening up their Sunday flier and seeing what new cool stuff was on sale. I still shop there every black friday and I have camped on their sidewalk on thanksgiving night more times than I can remember (seriously the cold has wiped out my memories.) I am a fan through and though, but like many fans of a franchise on the downswing my hope is dwindling.
In the past 3 years I cannot claim one situation where I've had a good experience shopping at a Best Buy. That isn't to say they are overtly bad, we're not talking consumerist.com style interactions with employees or pseudo-scams. My problems have been much more subtle but I believe the issues I'm encountering will do more to hurt their brand than even the biggest of PR disasters. Their's will be a death by empathy as their customer base realizes that amazon.com and their other online competitors are simply more convenient and a better shopping experience than walking into a Best Buy.
As an example I'll talk about today's trip. It's one of many similar experiences but highlights some of my frustrations.
My wife and I walked into the store today, a particularly busy one out in Mentor, OH. I was there to spend a reward zone certificate and a couple gift cards on a Kindle. The first problem we run into is neither of us knew where we would find Kindles. This is partly because they are either frequently moved or located differently based on which store you're in. First I thought maybe the mobile department would have them, I swear I've seen e-readers over there before. No, ok what about media, I remember they used to stock hardcover books a few years back an e-reader isn't much different. Nope. Last stop is computers where we finally find what we came for.
We walk up to the display, I'm not quite sure yet if I want the normal entry level kindle or the kindle touch. This is a problem that a brick and mortar store is uniquely qualified to help with. I can't pick up and play with something on amazon.com but I can at Best Buy. So first I walk over to the entry level kindle. I pick it up and immediately an alarm goes off. Great, now everyone in the department is looking at me like I'm some kind of petty thief all because I wanted to play with something on display. Let me be clear this is not the first time this has happened to me. I've set off alarms on tablet computers, digital camera, just about anything that you pick up and hold in order to try out. The salesman comes over to turn off the alarm and even confirms that this particular one is prone to frequent false activations.
So while the alarm is being deactivated I pick up the Kindle touch and play around. I'm not too impressed so I switch back to the classic Kindle. I find out this unit has been damaged by customers and so it was reset to factory settings and now it doesn't have any books on it.
I walk away to head to car audio to setup an appointment for my wife's stereo install. This goes pretty well, it's a little slow to get the attention of a sales person but all told everything is handled well.
I've had time to think now so we head back to computers and I stand around for ten minutes while all the sales people are busy. I want the $79 kindle but there are none to be seen on the shelves, which leads me to believe my only option is to ask for one, meaning a lengthy wait for an available sales clerk and then another wait to checkout. All for a product not much more expensive than the $60 video games I can just pick up and carry to the counter.
Finally we're rung out, which goes well, and I'm on my wait out the door. No receipt check this time (another practice that gives retail a bad name in my opinion.)
Compare this to a trip to another retail electronics store - the Apple store.
When I bought the original iPad my trip to Apple's store went like this -
I walked in and an employee quickly asked my name and what I was there for that day. I told her I came to look at the iPad. She pointed me to a large display off to the right where I was able to pick one up and play with a number of apps that had been preloaded, and carefully selected, to show off the devices best uses. After a couple minutes another employee walked up and said "Hi Josh, I hear you're interested in the iPad." I had a couple of questions all of which he was able to answer then I told him I'd like to buy one. He pressed a button on his headset and requested someone bring up the product. While we waited he explained to me their Applecare plan, which I politely declined and then I was able to checkout, right there, as the employee ran my credit card on his iPhone which doubles as a point of sale device and emailed me my receipt. Meanwhile a third employee came from the back with my new iPad in a bag and ready to go. I walked out and the greeter thanked me for shopping.
The point of all of this is simple. The success of retail today is all about the experience. The experience of shopping at Best Buy is frustrating. Terribly ambience, employees who tend to be uneducated about the products, a confusing store layout where it's difficult to find anything, product displays that don't work, long waits for help when you need it and you feel like you've been labeled a shoplifter the moment you walk in the store.
I love going to the apple store, and clearly I'm not alone. They get it, and guess what, they don't give up anything to get there. You know those guys at the front of the Best Buy who check your receipts? The security guys (called LPs or Loss Prevention when I worked there.) Apple has that too, but she's a greeter who helps you get what you need and makes sure your name is in queue for help as soon as you walk in the door. She's also looking out for someone walking out the door with an iPod in their pocket but you don't realize that because she's genuinely helpful.
What about those dreaded add ons. The extended warranties and accessory sales. Apple does that too but they convince you it's good by making it part of the experience of playing with the product. They place the awesome 27" monitor with the mac mini and the magic trackpad. They put information about Apple care right next to the product and don't treat it as an upsell but a great product in and of it's own.
I've talked long enough and I could write a book on the things I think Best Buy could do to improve their experience but I'm going to wrap up with a list of a few heavy hitters.
1) Change your LP team into a customer care team. Give them an in-store intercom and when someone walks in with a purpose make sure they get to the right place and there's someone waiting there to help them with their buying experience.
2) Stop putting out demo units that don't work. This is such a pet peeve of mine. If you walk into any Best Buy in the country their mobile department will be made entirely of plastic phones with stickers made to look like the phone you really want. They don't work at all, they are completely fake. Stop that. Spend the money, open the box, work with your partners to get demo units, whatever you have to do but if I'm spending time to leave my home and go to your store I want the opportunity to use the product not look at a plastic brick of a phone. The same applies to any product anywhere in the store. This means no more locked screen savers on the computers, no more glued down remotes for TVs and no excuses. Customers will break things, they will steal them... deal with it.
3) Stop treating the people who are still showing up as criminals. We both know most theft in retail comes from the employees not the customers. I'm not saying you have to put out untethered demo units, but pay attention to how you tether. I should be able to comfortably use the product without your security getting in the way. For a phone that means a 4-6 foot cord not a 1 foot cord. For a kindle that means at least 2'. And for the love of all things holy ditch the ridiculously embarrassing alarms and come up with a way to draw attention to a untethered product without your customers getting a stare down. Remember that intercom thing in #1. Maybe you can put out a targeted announcement in your employees earpieces that a product is disconnected.
4) Make the checkout process better. Seriously just steal this one from Apple because they do it right.
5) Stop putting low cost items in cages. Sorry but $79 is far to low a price to be locked up. I should be able to walk in, pick up a kindle and take it to a checkout counter (or someone to check me out, see #4.) I understand the $1500 laptops and $700 iPads.
6) If something is locked up have dedicated runners instead of waiting for a sales guy who is constantly busy. Maybe your geek squad people could double as this on lighter days.
7) Your store layouts feel dated and confusing. There shouldn't be three places that a e-reader could reasonably live. I have no real suggestions here other than to look at what Ikea does for appliance sales and maybe borrow a bit of their "small homes" model for your bigger departments. You actually bought Magnolia a decade or so ago and they did this well.
8) Get rid of the furniture departments. It's always been half assed and it makes you look bad. If you must keep it around then take some pride in it and come up with a way to make it work. Maybe see the Ikea like homes in #7. This one is kind of random but it's always bugged me.
9) Display the accessories for the product with the product. Put them at eye level and make them relevant. That means Kindle cases should be next to the kindle. The Ink for the printer, even if it's an end cap should be next to the printer. Never ever let the wrong accessory be next to an incompatible purchase (this happened to me once and I almost walked out with 60 dollars worth of the wrong ink for a printer.) This is your bread and butter, you customers shouldn't have to hunt to help you sell them.
That's just a few ideas. I'm no retail expert and these could all be terrible from a business perspective. Clearly some of them will cost some money to implement, but I really do believe in order to compete with online Best Buy has to make the most out of the advantages of bring a Brick and Mortar store. That means the convenience of getting your product the day you want it, the ability to see related products and get those too, and the ability to hold, feel, touch and play with the thing you're thinking about buying.