Bye bye, Best Buy?

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I admit it: I shop at online retailers all the time. A significant chunk of the Christmas presents I gave this year were in the form of Amazon gift certificates. And if you’ve been reading me here for any length of time, you know that I spend more time browsing and buying things from Newegg than I do hanging out with some members of my family. But I still felt my heart sink into my kneecaps as I read Larry Downes’s story on Forbes.com, “Why Best Buy is Going out of Business… Gradually.”

In the story, Downes cites some chilling statistics about Best Buy losing market share, 40% of its value, a decreased market cap, and a B- average analyst rating. He also discusses the ways the company has failed to extricate itself from old-world thinking. In the ways its employees order products, aggressively try to up-sell or cross-sell when dealing with shoppers, and even address their own mistakes, the company is digging its own grave. Where Amazon makes even the most tedious and usually distasteful tasks a breeze — never have I had an easier time exchanging a product than I did my malfunctioning first Kindle — Best Buy introduces only frustration and confusion. And thus it’s no surprise that customers are turning away from it in favor of other options.

Given what’s already happened to other major electronics chains like CompUSA and Circuit City, there’s real reason to fear the disintegration of Best Buy. And if or (gulp) when it happens, it would be a major loss to both casual and serious buyers.

Wait — please don’t brand me as some incurable Luddite who can’t negotiate the transition to a digital marketplace. That’s not remotely true. Aside from clothes, certain tech products are about the only things I feel a need to buy in person. When I’m getting books — hey, not everything is yet available for my (replacement) Kindle — I never hesitate to do that online rather than at one of New York City’s roughly 800 Barnes & Noble stores. I’ve never accepted the argument that being able to rifle through a book’s pages and feel its cover is of any particular importance; for me, what matters is the content on the inside, and the easier that is to acquire, the better. Ditto cookware and other basic household appliances.

But when it comes to many tech-related purchases, being able to see, and in many cases feel, what you’re getting is crucial to making sure you’re not wasting your money or your time. For all the benefits of Amazon and Newegg, they prevent the direct interaction that is sometimes the most important information you can acquire before you lay down your credit card. Online reviews are frequently excellent for assessing a product’s bare capabilities, and especially good sites (like Newegg) give you all the specifications you need to make an intellectually informed decision. That’s just not always enough. Don’t you want to see your prospective HDTV’s screen in action, slide your fingers across a keyboard to see if it meshes with your typing style and preferences, get a concrete idea of how convenient a laptop really is for you, or sit down at the fully featured desk you plan to buy for using that computer? Even with our current, highly advanced web-based purchasing culture, some things can’t be left to mere faith.

Many customers will suffer if there are no longer stores that cater to those types of products — and, in turn, the products themselves will suffer. There are still some smaller, independently owned shops out there, but they can be few in number, hard to find, and short-lived, whether in the smallish town where I’m originally from or New York City (where they seem to pop in and out of existence with no advance notice). Then there’s the matter of last-minute emergencies, which e-tailers have never been adept at handling; more than once, I’ve found myself in the middle of building a computer only to find I’m out of thermal paste, and been grateful there’s a Best Buy a few blocks away where I can pick up another tube without having to wait a couple of days for Newegg to send me another. Department stores and discount clubs like Walmart, Office Depot, Staples, and Costco, may sometimes have what I’m looking for, but despite their dizzying selections, they rarely (if ever) stock enough of the specific items a truly discriminating tech buyer needs. And not everyone has one of the increasingly few alternatives, such as a Fry’s, anywhere near them.

The white knight to the rescue

Luckily, not all hope is lost. If any company has proven the continuing viability of living-and-breathing retail outlets, it’s Apple, which is constantly opening new Apple Stores all over the world. True, these offer a lot more than just products for sale; you can get repairs, replacements, expert advice, and even training workshops as well, in addition to eye-grabbing architecture and interior designs that make entering one almost like stepping into a modern art museum. But that’s exactly the point — Apple, seeing how the public was changing the way it shopped, changed the nature of its stores to match. That company gives people a good reason to shop in person rather than just online.

That, as Downes argues, is what Best Buy most needs to work on. If it does, it’s possible the company will turn things around, or that a new alternative (preferably one with friendly same-day delivery within major cities?) will emerge; right now, I’m skeptical of both. This sector of the brick-and-mortar business hasn’t looked good for a while, and neither have the Best Buys I’ve frequented in recent years. They’ve been populated with fewer salespeople, with the remaining ones not quite as knowledgeable as those who came before, and been hampered by a drastically reduced selection that seldom makes shopping there even on the best day as satisfying as browsing Newegg on its worst. There have been a number of times I’ve gone in expectant and left annoyed; and a couple of years ago, the company lost out selling me an impulse iPhone because none of the clerks would wait on me. It doesn’t always seem like the customer is really its first priority, something you always are whenever you buy from a website.

Nonetheless, you can bet I’m going to try to throw Best Buy as much of my extra business as I can over the next months and years. There are things I don’t like about the company and how it operates, but it still offers me a convenience I often need — and that e-tailers can’t come close to matching. That’s worth a couple of extra bucks to me now and then — as is being able to find thermal paste on a moment’s notice. Even if Best Buy’s name can seem something of a misnomer these days, it’s better than the nothing that’s far too close to being all we’ll have left if it goes away.

Source: Extreme Tech