What Is Best Buy's Real Problem?

Are the prices too high or is the customer service just too bad?

Best Buy (and many other brick and mortars) often blame online stores like Amazon for their problems. The chief complaint centers on how online stores compete unfairly because they don't have to collect sales tax.

But is that the real reason? I don't think so, and neither do many of those I've spoken with on the topic this past week. Those conversations were prompted by an article on Forbes.com by Larry Downes, "Why Best Buy is Going out of Business...Gradually." He puts some numbers with his poor experiences at Best Buy and comes to the conclusion that it's customer service which really makes the difference - not price.

At the risk of "piling on," I present two experiences I had with Best Buy this past year which I think prove Mr. Downes' point quite well:

Experience The First - Buying Mom a New Computer
Whenever I head up to Michigan to visit Mom, I usually get hooked into doing pro forma tech support. I don't mind, though, because her being online and tech savvy helps us to communicate better. When we were there this Summer, she said it was time replace her outdated desktop. So, we headed over to the local Best Buy to see what we could find.

Mom had a specific budget and certain things she needed her new machine to do. I wanted to get her a powerful enough computer to last a few years from a brand with decent tech support - in case I wasn't available to help her over the phone.

We walked into the store and straight back to the computer section. Of course, we were immediately approached by a salesperson. I explained that I would let him know when we'd made a selection, but that we really didn't need any help. He hovered around (way too close, I might add) for several minutes.

In the meantime, I pulled out my iPhone and started looking at the models they had on display, checking details, specs and user ratings from various sites. Much the opposite of Best Buy's complaint that people use them as a showroom then later go purchase from Amazon, I often go to Amazon for ratings because they usually have good ones. I also check NewEgg and search Google and Bing on the model numbers to catch any ratings I might miss. That was when the salesperson disappeared.

Once we narrowed down our choices to two, I had a specific question about one of them. Once we hunted down the sales person, he had no idea what I was even asking. More googling came up with the answer and we had our choice. Then we had to hunt the guy down again to get the item so we could pay for it. Of course, we were asked a half-dozen times if we wanted to purchase the extended warranty. After declining the first time, I wished they'd quit asking.

This experience wasn't too terrible, of course. Pretty typical for Best Buy and many other stores.

Experience The Second - The Missed Pickup
My wife and I recently decided to replace our malfunctioning home theatre unit.  She did most of the research, narrowing the myriad of selections down to two. We decided on one and checked prices online. We found that Best Buy had the best price, beating Amazon - even including the sales tax and $10 in-store pickup delivery charge. (Why is there a delivery charge to pick up an item already at the store? That really puzzled me.) I ordered the item from Best Buy's web site and opted for the in-store pickup.

The next day, we went to our local Best Buy to pick up the item and purchase a new HDMI cable. The pick up line is situated next to the returns line, with a shared POS terminal between them. The people working didn't have my item immediately ready even though I got an email indicating it would be so. No big deal, though, since someone very quickly went to the shelf and grabbed one for us. But, I had to get into the returns line to pay for the HDMI cable. Again, no big deal since they put me ahead of others already in line (which probably didn't make them happy).

We went home and set up our new sound system. It is very nice. My wife is playing Skyrim right now and the sound is excellent. We are quite happy with the purchase.

The day after I picked up our item, I got an email from Best Buy reminding me to pick up my purchase. I was a little puzzled, but just deleted the email. My initial thought was, "The in-store system hasn't synced with the main system, yet."

I got another email the next day, and the next. For ten days, each morning, I received an email reminding me that my purchase was ready for pickup. I remember even tweeting once something like, "@BestBuy, why are you spamming me to pick up an item I already picked up?" I thought it rather humorous. The last email warned that if I didn't pick my item up, they would cancel my order. Cancel? On an order for an item I already picked up? Nonsense!

Oh, but they were serious. The next day I received an email letting me know that my order had been cancelled and my card credited the amount of the purchase. A quick check of my bank account verified that they had, indeed, refunded my money. Now I laughed out loud.

I wanted to let Best Buy know about this so they could get their money; that was only fair. I called the number on my email receipt and hit zero until I got a real person. I explained to the lady I spoke with what happened in detail. She was surprised and said she'd transfer me to the correct department immediately.

I sat on hold for half an hour. After wasting enough of my monthly allotted cell minutes on this, I decided to try to email. After all, this was their error - why should I waste my minutes.

I pulled up my email receipt again and hit reply. I wrote a very detailed message describing what happened and asked them to respond so we could work out how to make this right. After all, I wanted to get them the money they were legitimately due for my purchase.

My message received an auto response:
This is an automated response. Please do not reply to this email.
If you need assistance, please contact our Customer Care, http://www.bestbuy.com/ or call 1-800-BESTBUY.
I hate auto responses like that.

Companies Note: Never bounce an email from a customer telling them you don't monitor a specific email address. MONITOR ALL EMAIL ADDRESSES you send email from. Don't waste your customers' time.

I clicked on the link in the response, which lead to Best Buy's customer service contact form. I copied the text from my bounced email and pasted into the message box on the form and made sure to enter my order number in the appropriate place. At this point, I was starting to get a little perturbed, having wasted almost an hour trying to give them their money. In the message box I wrote that this was the third and final time I was going to try to contact them regarding this matter. If they wanted their money, they should email or call.

Another auto response was the last message I heard from them:
Best Buy Customer,
This message was automatically generated in an attempt to answer your question as quickly as possible. If you are contacting us to cancel, or modify your BestBuy.com order, please call us at 1-888-BEST BUY. (1-888-237-8289)
Thank You.
Best Buy Customer Care
I didn't want to cancel or modify my order, and I certainly didn't want to spend another 30-plus minutes on hold.

It's been nearly a month since this transpired and I still haven't heard anything. Those I have related this story to feel I did more than most people would have to get them their money and that I should consider the home theatre unit a Christmas gift. Perhaps they are right.

The Bottom Line
There have been many surveys done in the past several years where consumers have indicated they'd be willing to pay extra for better customer service (examples here, here and here), and many people willingly pay a little extra for more service than standard offerings. I've experienced exceptional customer service for which I probably payed a little more on several occasions. I didn't mind a bit.

I'm really very surprised Best Buy didn't beat a path to my door to collect their money. If they had at least acknowledged my efforts to contact them I would be telling quite a different story here. Instead, I'm commenting on an article which offers up what I think is an apt analysis of Best Buy's self-inflicted woes based on my own experience with them.

I wonder if their leadership will take notice and try to change course. If they don't I suspect it won't be too long before they meet a similar fate as so many of their former competitors.

What say you? What do you think about Mr. Downes' take on Best Buy's situation? What do you think about my experiences with them? Do you think I did enough due diligence in trying to right their error? Please feel free to tell us what you think in the comments.

Oh, and Best Buy: If you do decide you want your money please give me a call or email me. You have my contact information.

Lastly: Just as I was finishing this up, I caught a response to the Forbes.com story by Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn on their blog. Check out the comments, too.

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