Why Best Buy Is Struggling: A Personal Tale

on March 29, 2012

Best Buy, which has been struggling of late, announced today that it was closing 50 big box stores as part of a restructuring. Some commentators viewed this as a sign that the big box retail model has outlived its usefulness, but I think a lot of Best Buy’s problems result from the chain’s flawed approach to retailing, especially customer service. This is just one personal anecdote, but I think it’s telling.

Last week, our aged dishwasher began leaking, so we went looking for a replacement. I find it hard to get excited about dishwashers, but I did a little bit of research on the web before we headed for or local Best Buy, with a newspaper flyer promising free installation in hand. As we looked at dishwashers in the store, an “associate” asked if he could help. My wife explained what we were looking for and asked about the free installation. He informed us it didn’t start until the next day. At that point, he seemed to lose interest andPhoto of Best Buy sotre wandered off.

We were in the store, ready to buy and a salesperson with a little incentive and a little authority would have found a way to close the deal. This associate apparently had neither, so we were out of there. Best Buy also announced today that it would begin basing sales staff’s compensation on customer service. That doesn’t seem to be part of the current equation.

We headed to our second choice, H.H. Gregg, which recently moved into a former Circuit City store about a mile down the pike. The salesperson there also told us the deal we had seen advertised didn’t start for another day, but he led us to an alternative available right away. He also noticed that the counter opening I had measured was a little shorter than normal (we had a ceramic tile floor installed after the old dishwasher was in place) and found us a model–actually less expensive than our original choice–that would fit more easily. Needless to say, he made the sale.

Admittedly, this is only one data point, but the indifferent attitude we encountered at Best Buy is a familiar one. About the only time I have seen Best Buy staff really engaged with customers is when they are trying to push overpriced and generally unnecessary service contracts. My friend Harry McCracken tweeted that what Best Buy really needs is Ron Johnson, the Apple Store chief recently departed to run J.C. Penney or someone like him.

We can’t expect Best Buys to turn magically into Apple Stores, which consistently offer the world’s greatest retail experience. But a recent piece in The New Yorker found evidence that retailers that pay their workers more than the competition tend to be more profitable, presumably because they can attract better employees. That’s something Best Buy ought to think about.