How (and Why) to Save Best Buy

May 14, 2011
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This past week, I did something I haven’t done in years. I bought a CD. I bought the Beastie Boys "Hot Sauce Committee Part 2." And I bought it at Best Buy. It's not that I'm against digital downloads. Quite the contrary. Not only am I a huge fan of digital music, but I also pay for every single track I download. I haven't downloaded songs illegally in years, and a hard drive crash a few years ago ensured that all of the music in my collection was either ripped from CDs I own, or downloaded legally.

[Image credit: Kerry Woo]

Unfortunately, my car is older than my digital music habit by far. It has a CD player and a cassette deck, but no external audio inputs for a digital music player. So, I used a cassette adapter to play my tunes. For the youngsters in the audience, a cassette is, um, gee I have no easy way of describing a cassette. It's so archaic. A cassette is like 90 minutes of music stored on a mile of confetti, stuffed into a small plastic box.

My cassette deck in my car broke. I tried the radio transmitter devices, and they all suck. Hard. I mostly listen to NPR, but every once in a while I burn a CD. I'm the guy who still needs an optical drive in my laptop, thank you very much. When the new Beasties album came out, it seemed silly to buy it digitally only to burn it to CD. I cut out the middle man.

If you haven't purchased a CD in a long time, there are some things you should know. First, record stores are mostly gone. They sell music everywhere they sell groceries and children's clothing and automotive repair parts under one roof. But those stores often don't bother stocking new music on the first day it's released. I figured Best Buy was my best bet.

Second, CDs are now cheap. Maybe it was just a special price for a new release, but I got the Beastie album for less than $10. iTunes is selling it for $15 with a music video, but Amazon has it for $8 as a digital download. Still, the last time I bought a CD it cost, um, I'm not sure, but I probably couldn't buy a bean burrito at Taco Bell with the change I got breaking a $20.

I walked into Best Buy and couldn't find the music section. Remember when it was right up front? And there was a whole, huge aisle devoted to new releases? Yeah, they don't remember that either. Music is now in the back, behind the washer/dryer combo units. It's next to the DVDs. It's like a hospice for optical media back there, except without the kind nurses and the sunny window.

No Beastie album in sight. Nothing in the sparse, pathetic new releases section. If there was a Beastie Boys section in the racks, it was either hidden or empty. Perhaps Best Buy considers the Beasties rap (I think they are closer to punk or rock), and this Best Buy has no rap section. I was about to leave when I decided to ask the kid at the register if they had the new Beastie Boys album.

They did. He directed me to a card table in the front of the store with a blue tablecloth on it. It looked like the table where they stack refurbished goods for final markdowns before they get tossed into the incinerator. There was one copy of "Hot Sauce Committee Part 2." I took it. Less than $10, like I said. By the time I was one minute into the first track, I was already bopping my head and driving away, hoping to put the awful experience behind me.

Where did things go wrong? I'm happy to tear down the Best Buy experience and list every problem I encountered, but there is a bigger question to answer. Do we still need Best Buy? Is Best Buy a relic of the analog age? Is there any reason to shop at Best Buy, when you are guaranteed to find the product you want cheaper online? Or, even better, find the product that Best Buy doesn't carry?

Yes, I think there is a reason for Best Buy to live. I have owned three flat screen television sets. Two I bought at Circuit City. One I bought on Amazon. They are reputable, but not luxury brands (full disclosure: I now work for Samsung in the mobile phone division, but I haven't purchased a television or given TV buying advice since I started). Guess which one was the cheapest? The one I bought on Amazon. Guess which one looks the worst? The same.

I now believe that you need to see a TV in person to make a good buying decision. You need to compare it side-by-side with other TVs. You need to tweak the settings yourself to get the right balance of color and brightness, and judge with your own eyes. When I bought my first two TVs this way, I ended up with products that have made me happy for five years. When I bought a TV based on price and user reviews, I ended up with an LCD set that can't come close to competing, even with my old plasma.

There are products that you just need to see in person. I also like the idea of knowing that if something goes wrong, if I get a TV that is DOA, I can walk into an actual place, rather than sending a form letter email to customer service. Plus, it's just fun to see some things in person. Design has become so important in our consumer electronics purchases, and yet the differences between products are so subtle, that it's fun and informative to inspect a gadget before you buy it.

For Best Buy to succeed, it needs to use this advantage. You can't walk into Amazon, but you can go to Best Buy and see exactly the TV you want. Or you can listen to the CD you want to buy. Or play the game you've read about online. Or hold the camera you need for the cruise you're going on that leaves in the morning.

Except you can’t. Not really. Walking into Best Buy is a horrible, depressing experience. The staff is clearly poorly trained and uninformed. The knowledgeable geeks have all gone to work at the cell phone carrier stores. Best Buy is clearly hiring the bottom of the barrel.

I remember the time I signed up for the Best Buy rewards. I wasn't allowed to type in my information myself, I had to dictate it to the girl behind the register. The one who claimed to be tired from a long day of college classes.

"What's the street again?"

"Wildflower."

"How do you spell that?"

"Wild. Then flower. But one word. Wildflower."

Annoyed look.

"Can you please spell it for me?"

"No, I cannot."

When I went to look for the Beastie Boys CD, I scanned the aisle for 5 minutes before I gave up and headed for the door. No less than 3 Best Buy employees passed me by. I was the only person in that half of the store, but nobody asked me if I needed help. Nobody even said hello. What were they doing? I have no idea.

Best Buy needs to become a destination where tech enthusiasts want to go to get hands-on with the latest gadgets. The stuff they really want to buy, not the $500 coffee maker or the $20,000 4K 3D TV that you have to build a house around for it to fit. The CDs. The point-and-shoot cameras. The game systems.

Hire better people. Pay them well. Keep prices low. I know these things will all make a dent in Best Buy's bottom line. But you know what makes a bigger dent? Selling nothing. A store with more employees than customers by a factor of 5. Bankruptcy.

Best Buy needs to take this one final shot at glory. I refuse to believe that in the future all of our shopping will take place online. I refuse to accept that idea. We have legs, and eyes, and magnetic strips on the back of our credit cards. We are meant to go places, and see things, and spend money there.

I will not go back to Best Buy, at least not that Best Buy. I'm done. I gave the place one last chance. If I hear about significant changes, I'll reconsider. But I have to move on. I have to hope that something else pops up, a destination store where I enjoy shopping and seeing and feeling the product. Otherwise Best Buy will go the way of Circuit City and the Dodo bird and CompUSA. All the while, Amazon is licking its chops and thinking to itself: GameStop, you're next.


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