I had to use a Best Buy recently, which I think is the digital consumer equivalent of admitting you had to go to the doctor to have an ass boil lanced. Having read various articles predicting the demise of big box consumer electronics stores in the age of online retail, I was curious to see if the experience was any less horrible than my last trip. It wasn’t.
I’m pretty sure I’m well below the pay grade of any decision-makers in the Marketing and Merchandising division of Best Buy, but I think if my business were on the edge of extinction due to online retailers, I’d be inclined to move away from the “dimply lit yardsale filled with talking gnomes” model and toward something resembling a positive consumer experience. I know everyone goes on and on about how pricing is what’s killed the brick and mortar retailer, but I really don’t think that’s it.
I think they’re killing themselves.
And I’m not just talking about the new “retail walk of shame” Best Buy seems to have borrowed from Barnes and Noble–only without that fussy, English-professor-esque whiff of class and relevance. Instead of running the B&N gauntlet of tote bags, coffee mugs and bad post cards, trying to escape Best Buy, I was forced to walk though the silly maze of closeout crap you see above. At Best Buy, the merchandise on the RWOS isn’t even relevant to Best Buy, let alone my life, but I don’t think they mind. In fact, Best Buy doesn’t even try to hide that fact that they’re routing you away from the cash registers and then back toward them through a shit pile of bad merchandise on the off chance that you’d suddenly want some $3.00 headphones or potato chips. The impression is that you’re in a store that’s going out of business, which is, of course, the case.
But the store is the least of their problems.
More than any other store, Best Buy forces me to avoid “customer service” people, and while I’ve not had as appalling an experience as described in Larry Downes’ Forbes article from last December, few places cause as much sales agent anxiety as Best Buy due to the fear of what Downes aptly describes as “anti-service.” Simply put: you’re more likely to come away from any experience with a sales agent at Best Buy less satisfied than you would be if no one spoke to you during your visit.
Reasons for this are many. Unlike the thoughtful and reasoned analysis Downes offers, though, I can simply resort to crude short-hand: Best Buy is still acting like a big company, and there are no more “big companies.” They seem to have failed to grasp the most substantial change the Internet has caused: we expect personal service. With the exception of Wal-Mart, who’s done a masterful job of targeting the ever-shrinking base of consumers who don’t realize the Internet exists, there is no such thing as a corporate retail juggernaut any more–a place capable of winning sales and loyal customers without engaging with those customers are people.
Ironically, the sure sign that you’re about to be treated like cattle is the “greeter.” Both Wal-Mart and Best Buy have them, and they’re appalling. Does anyone under the age of 80 honestly feel more warmly welcomed just because a front door lurker offers a “hello”? It’s the biggest kind of phony bullshit service, and the post boy for where they’ve gone wrong. When logging into an e-commerce site posts a “Hello Chris” account link in the upper corner of my screen, it means my shopping history and preferences have been queued up, and that my records and info. are available for me to review or change. The Best Buy equivalent isn’t similarly “social” because it doesn’t actually involve knowledge of me or my shopping at all. In fact, the greeter invariably gets in the way of my shopping experience, if you want to call it that, at Best Buy. It tells me Best Buy values paying a kid to stand around saying hello all day more than it values paying salaries for employees willing to genuinely be helpful.
In other words, you can’t fake giving a shit about people, and when it comes to customer service–more than pricing or sales tax–online retailers are so far superior to companies like Best Buy that the contrast is almost shocking.
How it’s come to this, I don’t know, but Best Buy and other big box retailers have failed to turn their storefronts into assets, allowing them instead to become major liabilities. Wild pipe dream or not, imagine for a second what a positive, consumer-driven change would look like at Best Buy. Realizing you need a product, you’d be able to quickly and easily verify that your local store had what you needed in stock. If they did, you’d order, walk in to a pick up area, swipe your card for ID and be handed your order. If the nearest store didn’t have what you needed, an inventory transfer would put it there within a day or two and send you a text message to let you know it had arrived.
In both cases, gone is the greeter. In his place is a way to get the items you wanted and get the hell out of the abandoned airplane hanger that is your local Best Buy. Come to think of it, maybe a few extra light bulbs wouldn’t hurt, either.