Larry Downes got a lot of publicity with a screed against Best Buy, declaring its imminent demise:

To discover the real reasons behind the company’s decline, just take this simple test. Walk into one of the company’s retail locations or shop online. And try, really try, not to lose your temper.

I admit. I can’t do it. A few days ago, I visited a Best Buy store in Pinole, CA with a friend. He’s a devoted consumer electronics and media shopper, and wanted to buy the 3D blu ray of “How to Train Your Dragon,” which Best Buy sells exclusively. According to the company’s website, it’s backordered but available for pickup at the store we visited. The item wasn’t there, however, and the sales staff had no information.

But my friend decided to buy some other blu-ray discs. Or at least he tried to, until we were “assisted” by a young, poorly groomed sales clerk from the TV department, who wandered over to interrogate us. What kind of TV do you have? Do you have a cable service, or a satellite service? Do you have a triple play service plan?

He was clearly—and clumsily–trying to sell some alternative. (My guess is CinemaNow, Best Buy’s private label on-demand content service.) My friend politely but firmly told him he was not interested in switching his service from Comcast. I tried to change the subject by asking if there was a separate bin for 3D blu rays; he didn’t know.

The used car style questions continued. “I have just one last question for you,” he finally said to my friend. “How much do you pay Comcast every month?”

My friend is too polite. “How is that any of your business?” I asked him. “All right then,” he said, the fake smile unaffected, “You folks have a nice day.” He slinked back to his pit.

Best Buy is on my blacklist of companies. They’re one of the Evil Corporations. I’m not a fan. I shop there sometimes, but only because I need to and there is no Fry’s around. What’s funny about this, though, is that the one thing Best Buy always did so much better than Circuit City is that they didn’t have the overly aggressive salespeople. I could shop in piece. And honestly, I can’t remember a problem even on more recent trips. So I don’t know if they changed their business practices from when I went there all the time (and the few times I’ve been recently I lucked out) or whether I just come with a “Don’t tread on me” demeanor.

His follow-up suggests that his experiences are not unique.

I also heard from plenty of current Best Buy employees, both via Forbes and through private emails. Best Buy has a strong sales culture at the stores, and some employees took the article personally. I called out some of their (non-obscene) comments on the original post, in part because I think they inadvertently highlight what’s wrong with the company’s current strategy.

Employees, I learned, are strongly conditioned to see every customer who walks in the store as a potential target, one who needs to be coerced into buying something other than what they came looking for.

But you can’t treat the customer as an adversary in a battle of wills. You can’t provide superior service when you’ve been drilled to view each person who walks into your store as prey. You can’t be a trusted source of expertise on consumer electronics when, as many former employees told me, failure to follow the company script means getting your hours cut or simply being fired.

A shame, if true. Since I consider Best Buy to be an Evil Corporation, I won’t mind if they go. I hope it provides an opportunity for Fry’s to expand. Fry’s has a bit of a different business model, with more of a bookstorish emphasis on “kick back, relax, have some coffee!” Of course, bookstores themselves are alleged to be in trouble. So Fry’s might choose to play it safe (one of Borders alleged mishaps was overexpansion, if I recall).

Category: Market

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One Response to Being Sold At Best Buy

  1. Peter says:

    Some years back Best Buy tried to make shopping a more pleasant experience by putting their workers on salaries rather than on commission. It really didn’t work, because the workers are under considerable pressure to perform even if their income isn’t directly dependent on sales.

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