Is Best Buy Really Finished?

I was just reading over the excellent (and long) story about Best Buy at Forbes and wondered, in light of today’s B&N announcement to pull the Nook financials out of their sinking brick-and-mortar business, whether stores like Best Buy and media giants like B&N need to exist at all.

First, before we begin, let’s talk about the Forbes’ article’s money shot:

But the numbers only scratch the surface. 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.

The writer, Larry Downes, clearly found a bum Best Buy in his travels, but recent Christmas kerfuffles in which Best Buy didn’t ship lots and lots of presents made the company look even worse. I personally haven’t been into a store in years although I do often pop into Office Depot and wander through their jaundiced electronics section.

First, is Best Buy really so bad?

Our own Chris Velazco, who worked at a Best Buy in New Jersey (and actually appeared in some BB commercials before we whisked him away), found his own experience there to be fun and rewarding – if limiting. He admits that the pay wasn’t that great, but the company had some interesting benefits for full-time employees.

“Full timers got tuition assistance, that would’ve been nice as a part timer who worked there for five years,” he said. Matt Burns, who worked at Circuit City, described it as a veritable worker’s paradise. “We had a couple guys in my store making more than $80,000. Surprisingly the Flint store was until the end one of the top stores in the region.”

I asked them what Best Buy can do to turn itself around.

“So you pay better, get real salesman instead of kids, and in turn provide a lot better experience to the shopper,” said Burns.

I bring these easy quotes in because first Downes really doesn’t ask anyone at Best Buy what they think about working there, which I suspect may be the root of his perception. The employees are marking time, at best, as they look for something better. In a world where Zappos and Bonobos offer 24/7 superhuman service and Amazon (true story) lets you sometimes keep things you want to return and just gives you your money back, Best Buy’s primary mission should be to make sourpusses like myself and Downes feel like they just walked into, well, an Apple Store. They can’t do this by short-changing workers and upselling folks constantly.

The world needs a Best Buy. Where else will they buy their TVs? But then again, considering the resources required to ship ten or so units to each Best Buy, set them up, and then drive the unit home when it’s bought, you might as well just warehouse them somewhere central and ship them ad hoc to buyers. You can claim that you “feel better” by going in to see the different TVs, but is that really true? Barring a few differences, a TV is a TV is a TV, just as a laptop is a laptop is a laptop. They are commodities.

Best Buy is a giant. It may or may not be able to turn itself around and current financials make things look bleak. But America needs Best Buy – or something like it. However it also employs a lot of good people and a lot of fools. Anecdotally, I think this general concept of bundling, upsell, and the like is tragically flawed. There were reports here in Brooklyn of folks at Best Buy and Radio Shack being forced to buy cases, chargers, car adapters, and other junk in order to buy an iPhone or iPad. It’s these stories that you remember, not Chris Velazco’s smiling face greeting you in the phone section.

Customer service has changed considerably since the days of the sullen cashier at Service Merchandise telling you it’s not his department. Best Buy has arguably changed with the times, but perhaps, in an era when it’s more efficient to ship a laptop from China to Scranton than trust Chris Velazco to sell it for you at a large, well-lit store, it’s already too late.