Best Buy Revisited: Buying a PC at retail isn’t as bad as I first found

bestbuy01 Over the weekend I twittered about a follow up visit to Best Buy.  Given the volume of mail I received in response to my post on shopping trips to local Apple Store and my neighbouhood Best Buy (the good, the bad… you get the picture), I thought that it would be a good idea to revisit the store and see what the shopping mood was like pre-Microsoft Gurus (as announced here).

First, let me say that this post garnered the largest volume of mail ever, producing and interesting grab bag of comments, with the majority echoing my experience…

"I haven’t bought anything at Best Buy in a long time and this is another reason to shop via the web."

"What did you expect to find? That’s about right. Sad."

"Apple has nothing to worry about."

"Does Best Buy really open computers and wipe the software off?"

More on that last question in a moment.

Several people sent me their feedback of positive experiences, including this one that summed it up pretty well from Grant:

"Best Buy has been a good store. They sand behind their sales and they provide refunds when things don’t work out. Most times I have been happy with their help in store and they have a good site. The support in the store can be hit and miss."

Hit and miss. That was my experience over the two weekend visits: last weekend was the miss, this weekend was a direct hit for positive customer service.

I walked into the store to see what the Best Buy customer experience would be at around 5:02 PM.  The store was busy and there were a dozen or more shoppers in the computer area (none in the Apple kiosk).  Several had that fish-out-of-water look, carefully reading the descriptions in front of each notebook and playing with the computers.  I noticed one blue shirted salesperson on the floor behind the counter, helping a customer with a sale (as noted in the picture above).  So far, it looked like this was going to be a repeat of the week before.

Moments later, as I counted nearly twenty people in the computer area, I looked around and saw five (yes, five) Best Buy salespeople moving in to answer questions.  Shock and awe.  I listened in to a couple of conversations as I waited my turn.  People got direct answers to specific questions and were steered to models that seemed to be appropriate for them.

As I stood looking at the large screen desktop replacement, 17 inch portables, I overheard one BB rep provide an answer to a young couple with questions about the $30 and $129 Geek Squad prep service offered.  This was also a popular topic in some of the mail I received, as readers asked similar questions of me:

"I heard that Best Buy will only perform the exorcism once you buy the computer."

"Do they really have machines that are pre-cleaned? Doesn’t that void the warranty?"

The BB rep pointed to the stock on hand and explained to the shoppers that this was a service they offered on all of their computers in stock.  A quick look around the computer section found several large, locked cabinets on the main floor.  Best Buy inventoryIn each cabinet were most of the notebook computers offered for sale on the main showroom floor, in some cases more than were found simply stored loose under the floor model notebooks.  As I watched I overheard a sales person repeating a similar offer to the one I’d heard a week prior: 

"I think that we are out of stock of the computer you are interested, but we have a couple of units that have already been optimized by the Geek Squad."  

A Best Buy PC that's been 'geeked' I looked down at the area the sales rep was kneeling in front of, to remove a package for the customer.  Sure enough, I noticed that a large sticker was affixed to all the inventory in this locked area, as shown (apologies for the blurry photo):

"This computer has been tested and set up by Geek Squad."

So yes, pre-Geeked (or would that be ‘de-Geeked’?) PCs were available for immediate purchase.  In one case, I heard that this was the only option for a customer, although the BB rep offered to look at the inventory at other stores if need be.  And no, explained the Best Buy rep, your full manufacturer’s warranty is still in effect.

About this time, a gentleman in a BB blue shirt by the name of Alex approached me, introduced himself and asked if I had any questions.  I first asked a few questions related to the Geek Squad service of removing what I termed ‘bloatware’ and what it entailed: contrary to what I had heard previously at BB, this response was delivered with a little more tact:

"Many computers come with trial and demo software already installed on the hard drive.  For $30 the Geek Squad will remove this software and make changes to the computer registry.  This will make the computer much faster." 

No mention of junk, spam or crapware this time, just references to trial software, as I had encountered during my previous visit, when I heard that "the computer comes with a bunch of junk and software that just clogs up the machine, and really slows them down."

Best Buy help in action I explained to Alex the general type of PC I was again searching for our home (having had to return my previous purchase due to a failed HDD in the first day of ownership — more on that later).  Over the next few minutes, Alex answered all my questions on the benefits of one model over the next, AMD as compared with Intel processors, the amount of memory and hard drive space I would need for our new family computer, and what he believed were the best choices for the price points I outlined.  He never disparaged the PC OEM, the software on the drive or the configuration.  Alex was helpful and professional, and generally knew what he was talking about. 

As I looked around, it seemed that the crowd had thinned and that all reps on the floor were now helping people walk out the store with a new computer in hand. Alex steered me in the end to Dell and Sony models with the same Intel dual core processor (a 5750), 3GB of RAM and a 250GB HDD.  In addition, he also suggested a comparable HP model with an AMD dual core and similar specs.  All models were roughly the same price: he explained it really was a matter of personal taste and aesthetics.

Looking at the Twitter log, by 5:20 PM I was out of the store: under 20 minutes all told.

There may not be many ‘it’ retailers for computers, but there are certainly good and bad store reps, each with varying degrees of knowledge and interest in meeting the customer’s expectations. 

In my previous visit to this big box store, I had found few people on the floor seemingly interested to engage with customers.  I found a fairly negative tone to the purchase experience, with references to bad things awaiting me in the box and steering me towards a complete computer cleansing, and had to wait what I thought was an inordinately long time for help. 

On my last visit, I found that my first glance was deceiving, with staff making their way to the floor to answer customer questions, guiding people through the purchase process and providing generally a better customer experience.  The rep provided what I’ll rate as on par with Apple Store service: courteous, knowledgeable and timely. 

You may not find it every time (and I’m sure that there are some customers who have had a negative Apple Store experience) but when you do, it works.  And this is before the Gurus.

Tags: Apple, Microsoft, Vista, Windows, Best Buy, retail, whack, Customer Service.

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