Confessions of a former Best Buy salesman

The State of Ohio is suing Best Buy. One former employee talked about his experiences working for the company.

I last worked for the company in 1995. To its credit, the company did much to persuade me to finish college: It motivated me to get an education so I could get a better job. A few things have changed since 1995, but what I’ve read today about the company rang so true.It might not be a good idea for me to say a whole lot more, seeing as my experiences are limited to working at two different stores nearly a decade ago, and seeing as my name is on it.

But what “Hopjon” said is very, very similar to my experience.

Extended warranties

They’ve never called them those, because extended warranties have a bad rap. They were called “Performance Guarantees” in my day. Now they’re PSPs, or “Performance Service Plans.” For a Benjamin or two, they’ll stand behind the product if it breaks outside of its manufacturer’s warranty period.

“Hopjon” says these warranties are misunderstood, if not downright misrepresented. My experience matches his. I was told that the “No Lemon” clause would replace the product the third time it had to come in for service. This was what my manager told me, and what I related to customers.

I found out the hard way, and to my great horror, that this isn’t the case. If you read the fine print very carefully, it stated that this replacement happens on the fourth service call. Not very clearly, mind you. Customer service knew the difference.

The difference is profitable.

Now, was it malicious? It’s hard to say. None of the managers who trained me were as smart as any of the managers I had when I worked fast food. The question is whether they were told the same thing I was told, or whether they were just told to read it, and someone higher up was hoping these misunderstandings would sometimes occur.

Upper management saw to it that much more time was spent explaining the benefits of 900 MHz cordless phones than all the terms of the extended warranties. (At the time, a 900 MHz phone was a $400 item.)

Whether to buy the extended warranty depends on the quality of the product and the cost of the product versus the cost of the warranty. If you choose to buy one, go over the terms with customer service. Don’t go by what the salesperson says.

Was I pressured to sell the warranties? Yes. Did I? It depended. When there was something in it for me, I sold more warranties than anyone else in my department. When the incentive wasn’t there, I could go weeks without selling one.

Employee expertise

The people who work there very rarely know much of anything special about what they sell. The managers were moved around from department to department. During my second summer with the company, the former computer manager was managing audio. The computer manager had been the manager of CDs and VHS tapes the summer before.

For a few weeks that summer, I worked in audio. I had been the most knowledgeable person in the computer department, by a long shot, especially when it came to any computer more than a year or two old. If the question involved a 286 or an XT, I was the only one who had a chance of answering the question. A customer only ever stumped me once, and that was someone who wanted to hook up an IEEE-488 printer to a PC. I’d never seen the cable he brought in before.

But for a couple of weeks I worked in audio, because my old boss wanted me. Eventually I moved back into computers because the computer people kept dragging me back over there to answer questions, and it didn’t look good to have some guy from audio answering all the computer questions.

The training is nothing. They have training sessions once a month, where they hand out manufacturer-supplied literature that gives an overview of the product, and then you take a test. You eventually have to pass it in order to stay gainfully employed, but the tests aren’t all that hard. I only missed one question on the Windows 95 literacy test on my first try, without ever looking at the educational literature.

Whatever the employee knows was gained on his or her own time. On company time, you’d better find a way to look busy, or else a manager will find something for you to do. Probably unloading the truck.

No pressure

That’s the mantra. It’s bull.

Now it’s true that the salespeople aren’t paid on commission. When I was hired on at age 19, I made a flat $5.35 an hour. That was 55 cents an hour more than I had made as a cashier at a now-defunct roast beef chain. Minimum wage was $4.25 an hour, as I recall.

Occasionally there were contests based on performance. Sometimes it was sponsored by one of our suppliers. Some days a store manager felt generous and would come by and tell us whoever sold the most warranties that shift would get a free CD.

But store managers got monthly bonuses based on sales. So, in effect, the managers were paid on commission. And yes, they did pressure the people under them.

So the people who do most of the legwork aren’t paid on commission, but the pressure is still there. In effect you get the worst of both worlds.

Bait and switch

I only remember one specific incident involving a printer and the person at customer service refusing to honor the posted price, and the department manager getting involved. Ultimately the customer was offered another, much more expensive printer, which he refused. The details are pretty hazy though. The customer was clearly right and the manager yelled at me after he left.

I do remember employees being accused of bait and switch by customers, and sometimes bragging about how close to the legal limit they’d come, but had just skirted the line.

The general attitude was that since they offered rain checks on sale merchandise that was out of stock, bait and switch was impossible.

Used merchandise sold as new

I had one manager who was especially fond of re-shrink-wrapping returned merchandise and selling it as new. This is against corporate policy, and it doesn’t necessarily go on everywhere. But the capability is there, and with it, the temptation.

As far as whether open-box merchandise was opened in the store or was a return, don’t let anyone fool you.Someone probably returned it.

People return merchandise for any number of reasons. You can save some money by buying open-box stuff, but you’re taking a chance. Customer service inspects the merchandise before taking it back. But it’s a fast inspection, and whoever is available does it. It’s not an expert inspection.

The story you may hear is that another customer wanted to see inside the packaging, so someone opened it in the store. That happens on rare occasions. Rarely was that item then marked down and sold as open-box merchandise. I usually saw someone re-seal it to sell as new. I’m pretty sure this was against corporate policy. I don’t know if it’s legal or not.

Do I shop there?

For seven years I didn’t, and I still try to avoid it but sometimes don’t have a choice. Circuit City used to be the closest alternative, but it had its own problems and closed. Silo left St. Louis way back in about 1990. The local chain, Goedekers, closed its South County store in about 2002.

In the name of competition, I buy all of that kind of stuff that I can at Office Depot or OfficeMax or Kmart. When it comes down to Best Buy or Wal-Mart, then I’ll buy at Best Buy. Not because I think Best Buy is a better company–I don’t like either company–but because Best Buy isn’t as big and powerful.

I wish people would realize that all so-called “Big Box” stores will have these tendencies, because the name of the game is maximizing profits. The smaller, local stores will charge higher prices, but in almost every case they give better service.

Gateway buys eMachines

Gateway is hoping that its quarter-billion-dollar purchase of eMachines will help it turn around and make it the #3 PC maker in the United States. Seeing as eMachines is consistently #3 in terms of sales, eMachines plus anything is probably the #3 vendor.

The interesting thing to me is that eMachines is profitable. That wasn’t always the case.Gateway has been a victim of its own cost-cutting measures. Its PCs have never been known for being particularly trouble-free or reliable, but in surveys in the early ’90s, Gateway always ranked first or second in resolving problems. But like most vendors, the first thing cut when trying to lower prices was customer service.

I don’t doubt that Gateway’s PCs are better today than they were 10 years ago–most of its suppliers from that era are gone now–but shaking that reputation will be hard, and without good help, they’ll continue to struggle. Having worked on a number of Gateway PCs built in the late 1990s, I know they were problematic. The power supplies were too weak and the drivers for the sound and video cards didn’t always play well together. Two of my previous employers looked long and hard at Gateway, but one abandoned them because of difficulties getting them to run any OS other than the one it originally shipped with, and the other abandoned them in favor of Micron, who priced its offerings similarly but gave stronger power supplies for the price and generally just worked a lot more reliably.

I don’t know if the eMachines purchase will turn the company around or not. Certainly it will streamline things and allow Gateway to cut prices further on its own PCs. If Gateway can go back to providing the best support in the business and play up that angle, I think it has a chance of returning to its past glory. But time will tell.

Two vendors you can count on

Vendors. I’ve been trying to get out of the build-PCs-for-friends business and for the most part I’ve succeeded. My reasons for getting out are twofold: time and support. It takes some time to spec and build one, and if something goes wrong, I’ve got some responsibility for it. It’s something I don’t understand, because the systems I’ve built for myself have been reliable (I had a system appear dead that turned out just to be a corrupt MBR–I can live with that now that I know how to fix it, and it wasn’t the hardware’s fault) but the last two PCs I’ve built for friends have been horrendous.
One of those up and died last week, so we ordered replacement parts. I didn’t get around to placing the order until after close of business Friday, so the orders didn’t get processed until Monday.

I ordered a Gigabyte 7IX-E4 motherboard from Newegg.com. Newegg rakes you over the coals on shipping sometimes, but sometimes they run specials, and this board’s shipping was 5 bucks. Often they’ll charge 10 bucks to ship a CPU, which is ridiculous. Five bucks to ship a motherboard isn’t bad. And their pricing is first-rate–they’re obviously making their profit margins on shipping. But I’ll forgive Newegg’s shipping prices because the package arrived yesterday, even with the holiday Wednesday.

So, if you’re in the market for a motherboard, CPU, video card or hard drive, those guys are worth a first look. Figure out what you want, check the shipping, then check elsewhere and see if they still beat it. I’ll be doing business with them again.

I ordered the CPU, case, and fan (along with another case and video card for me) from Directron.com. Directron’s shipping prices are about as good as you’ll find, and the order is promised today. When Steve DeLassus ordered a batch of stuff from them it arrived promptly, so I trust them. Directron’s pricing is a bit spotty, but their shipping often makes up for it (they wanted $10 more for the CPU, but after shipping they ended up being cheaper than anywhere else I looked) and they’ve got the best case selection I’ve ever seen. Shipping for two cases, a video card, a CPU and CPU fan ended up being about $20, which isn’t bad at all.

Switchboxes. Gatermann’s Linksys KVM switchbox was a disappointment, but I thought to have him try connecting the extension cable directly to his monitor cable to see what that did to the image. I had a hunch that the problem might be the cabling, because I remembered yesterday morning that I’ve seen extension cables cause precisely the effects he was seeing. Sure enough, when he connected the cable (a Belkin, incidentally) to his monitor, the picture quality degraded–worse than it had been with the switchbox in the equation. So I’m going to dig up a couple of other types of cables (I use Fellowes cables on mine) and see if that makes a difference.

An untrustworthy vendor

First things first. About a month ago I ordered an FIC AZ11 from GPS Computers. One of my readers recommended them because he found Duron motherboard/CPU combos for a Backstreet Boys song there. I agreed. The price was unbelievable.It took about three weeks, but I got my order.

Steve DeLassus found their service to be worse than the very worst Backstreet Boys song.

He ordered a motherboard a couple of days after I did. They charged his credit card on May 1. But Steve still hasn’t received the order. He never received the courtesy of a tracking number (neither did I) or even confirmation e-mail (neither did I). My order just showed up one day. After that, I was wary of doing business with them again, but I wanted to see how Steve’s experience went.

Steve had a couple of e-mail exchanges with Terry Holmes, GPS’ president. Holmes promised to expedite the order, so he should have received it on or around May 17. That didn’t happen. Since then, Steve’s repeated efforts to contact them via e-mail and telephone have failed.

Their initials are pretty appropriate. Their service reminds me of a gigantic pile of s–uh, never mind.

I’m not gonna call them crooks, so I’ll just let this suffice: Steve gets ripped off so you don’t have to.

And I notice Mwave.com has the same board for $72. That’s still a good price. They’re charging a bit more for the CPUs, but when you actually ship all of your orders and not just half of them, your margins are a bit lower, so I guess they have to charge more.

PCNation.com: Absolutely not recommended

Don’t order from PCNation.com. That was the outfit I got my NEC 19″ monitor from. I won’t call them a PriceWatch bottom-feeder, since I’m not sure if they advertise on PriceWatch, and they did actually ship product. I made the mistake of waiting out my slightly-damaged NEC FE950+ monitor to see if its defect was indeed only cosmetic. PCNation offers a so-called 30-day return policy, so I figured I’d give it about three weeks. Big mistake. I should have made them eat the monitor.
I suspected the monitor’s settings were drifting on me. But after I reset everything to 50%, which should theoretically give you an acceptable display on any new monitor, I indeed got an acceptable display. Not as brilliant as it could be, but better than any cheapie, certainly, and with little or no drift. But the flaw didn’t get any less annoying with time. So I called the customer service number on the Web site. I have no idea who the foreign-accented guy was I talked to, but his business sure didn’t have anything to do with computers. So, out of options, I e-mailed their customer service. Six days later, rather than getting a response to my query, I got their true customer service policy (which has a few clauses I didn’t see on the Web site when I ordered, and it also has a different phone number than the one listed on the Web site). The most important bit: All returns must be completed within 30 days of the invoice date. Not the date of receipt. And by completed, they mean the returned box is in their hands, delivered.

Let’s do the math. The order is shipped. The clock starts ticking. Five days later you receive it. You have a problem. It takes customer service a week to respond with their policy. You re-describe the problem. A week later you get an RMA. You ship the product. It takes them five days to receive it. Their 30-day return policy ends up having closer to six days’ usable time. Better hope you find your problem fast. (I found it and I didn’t act on it right away–so much for good faith. No good deed goes unpunished…)

And on top of that, if you order something from them, count on it taking two weeks for you to receive it. It took them more than a week to process my order. Then when they shipped it, there was no confirmation e-mail and their Web page didn’t provide a tracking number. The only way I knew the thing had been shipped was my incessant checking of my order status. Finally the order showed up, with no warning.

Seems to me your best bet would be to immediately start the ball rolling on getting a return the day you place the order. That way you’ll have 20-25 days to make sure everything’s OK.

So, what do they have going for them? Slow order processing and shipment. No way of tracking the shipment. Misleading policies. Lousy customer service. Mediocre selection. The only thing these chumps have going for them is price. I will assume that they didn’t deliberately ship a bum monitor to me. Unlike the very worst of the worst, they did at least ship something, and unlike the worst of the worst, it was what I ordered.

Looks like you have to know how to deal with them. You know what? You’re better off ordering from someplace reputable that takes care of their customers. Mwave.com’s prices are almost as good, they don’t play bait and switch with their policies or their phone number, their customer service is pretty quick, and more importantly, the people are courteous and reasonable. I knew better, and I did the dumb thing anyway.

In retrospect, I should have called them first, before I ordered anything. Not getting the right number would have tipped me off straight up that something wasn’t kosher. Hearing the real return policy would have been another tip-off. When dealing with a strange, new vendor, you can’t know too much. Learn what you can before plunking down your credit card. Check Resellerratings.com (that I did–they turned out OK there). It also wouldn’t hurt to do a Web search on them, and a Usenet search (DejaNews is your friend, and it’s back and better than ever).

But hey, let’s look at the bright side. Now you know not to order from them, and why. And I’ve got a slightly imperfect NEC monitor, but seeing as I’d rather have an NEC monitor that’s been run over by a bus than any other brand, I can live with that.

I get ripped off so you don’t have to. This time.

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