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.

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