My wife and I have a love/hate relationship with Best Buy. For a long time they’ve been the only complete Bricks and Mortar game in town, but the shopping experience has been horrific. When you are neither the low-price leader (ala Wal-Mart and Costco) nor the service/experience leader (ala Nordstrom, Apple Store, etc.) then you’re in trouble. And they are. The question is, can they remake themselves into something that leaves them the last nationwide survivor of the dedicated cross-vendor technology chains?
Comparing our experience buying a camera a few years ago with buying one this weekend offers some hope that Best Buy is navigating a path forward. A few years ago, and this experience has been repeated multiple times for various products, we went in looking for a camera.
Like most products at Best Buy the demo units are connected to security devices which were then attached to coiled wire. This makes it impossible to actually hold the camera as it would be held in real life, feel its weight, etc. you would be repeatedly accosted by salespeople who it would turn out knew nothing about cameras. Worse, when you told them you wanted to hold the camera without the security device they would tell you it wasn’t allowed. If you pestered enough of them long enough they would find a manager who would come remove the security device so you could really hold the camera. Questions? Sorry, we don’t know how to really answer those! And so frustrated, and not really wanting to repeat the experience of trying to get a different camera removed from the security device, we left and went to a nearby camera store. We bought a camera for more than it would have been at Best Buy and much more than it would have been from Amazon, B&H, or a half-dozen other reputable web stores.
Indeed in most cases I’ve walked out of Best Buy without something, whether then purchased at another bricks and mortar store, or most likely online, it has had little to do with a modest price difference. Either the Best Buy shopping experience made me want to run home and take a shower, or they didn’t have what I wanted.
Our plan this weekend was to go camera shopping at the local camera store we’ve had good experiences with. But we decided to stop at Best Buy first to get an idea of prices. Surprisingly we were greeted by an experience closer to an Apple Store than the Best Buy of old (though clearly they could do more). There were greeters to direct us. While looking at a (broken) demo unit a manager came by and asked if we needed help. He then went to find “Clint”, the guy who really knew about the cameras. And know them he did, Clint was able to answer our questions about different models and what the trade offs were. And when we mentioned the broken demo unit Clint simply said “Let me open a box and get one out for you”. A short while later we’d decided on a camera and were loading up on accessories and plunking down my credit card. Clint went one better. I had read a review suggesting the use of a wrist strap instead of the included neck strap and asked Clint about it. He pulled out a box with wrist straps that were left over from demo units and offered me one for free.
Yes I could have saved about 7% at Amazon, but the service was worth the extra cost. Sure when I know I want the RouteCo 15237-QX router I’m just going to buy it online. But when I need to hold and try something, I want an experience like we just had buying the camera. And I’ll pay a modest premium for it. So if this experience was indicative of where Best Buy is going they may just have a shot at survival. At least I’m going to feel a lot better about going there when I need to buy consumer electronics.