In a highly publicized article, Forbes argues that Best Buy is not long for this world.
I can’t disagree with any individual point in the article. Some of the problems Larry Downes identifies existed when I worked there in the early 1990s–I’d spare you the joke about being young, naive, and needing the money, but it’s too late now–but in the 1990s they could get away with that, sort of, because there were competitors who tried to get away with worse.
Sears/Kmart is a favorite whipping boy, but they have one very big thing up on the land of the blue shirts. I can make a five-minute trip to Sears or Kmart–particularly Sears Hardware–to pick up a couple of things, and I do so fairly frequently. I tried a couple of weeks ago to do that at Best Buy, and, like the author said, calling it a miserable experience is putting it mildly.
One of the few things Circuit City did well–and Best Buy never did learn to do–is local pickup for online orders. I did it a couple of times when Circuit City was still around, and the main thing that kept me from doing it more was Circuit City’s location. It required a dangerous left-hand turn on the busiest street in the county without a stoplight, so I had to want something pretty badly in order to mess with it. But the pieces Circuit City had direct control over worked very smoothly. You’d order online, pay online, get to the store, walk up to the counter, hand over a confirmation number and ID, and the clerk came back with your item. It was about like ordering from Amazon or Newegg, but I could have the item in hand the same day.
Best Buy desperately needs to emulate Micro Center. I can go to Micro Center’s web site. I can see what they have, what it costs, and how many they have in stock. I can order it and they’ll have it waiting for me if I want. Or if I decide to go to the store and find it myself, they have people who will help me if I have questions. The staff is reasonably friendly and knowledgeable. And if I have to return something, they don’t hassle me for 20 minutes with an interrogation under bright lights like I’m trying to break the law. Micro Center is 35 minutes away and its parking lot is always full of rude people and the sales tax there is nearly double what it is anywhere else in Missouri, but I go, because the in-store experience is enjoyable. Best Buy’s in-store experience reminds me of my old dentist. That’s the one I don’t go to anymore.
You survive in business by offering something your competitors can’t. Best Buy rose to prominence by hassling you less than other electronics retailers. Those retailers are gone now.
I don’t think it’s too late for them to save themselves. Micro Center has a formula that works, but they aren’t everywhere and they don’t compete with everything Best Buy sells. But if nothing changes, then yeah, they’re gone. Because there’s nothing that Best Buy sells that isn’t also available somewhere else with less hassle, a lower price, or both. Between discount, office supply, and home improvement stores, I can get anything Best Buy sells somewhere else with less hassle and still get it the same day. Or if I need the best possible price and can wait a few days, I can order it from Amazon or Newegg.
One thing that struck me the last time I visited Best Buy was that the store was crowded, despite it being a dentist-like experience. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe it was because Christmas was near. Maybe those people weren’t buying anything, or they weren’t buying high-margin items.
The only reason I’d ever miss Best Buy is because they’re the most convenient place to recycle old CRTs. Maybe that means I need to scour the house and make sure I haul in all of those CRTs before they disappear.