Apple, Microsoft and Samsung 'Mini Stores' Make Best Buy Better

Amazon and other online sellers continue to steal customers from traditional electronics retailers, but Best Buy is fighting back with better service and product specialists from Samsung, Apple and Microsoft.

When I first heard about Best Buy’s store-within-a-store concept, I was cynical. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or in this case, the sales aisles in Best Buy, doesn’t change much, I thought. But I may have been wrong. I spent some time at one of the largest Best Buy stores in San Francisco last week and came away impressed.

The Best Buy I visited includes both Samsung and Apple mini-stores, and it has Microsoft employees on the sales floor. The employees at the mini-stores do not work directly for Best Buy; they work for Samsung, Apple and Microsoft.  And the people I spoke with, particularly the Microsofties, really knew what they were talking about.

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Not Much to Do? Better Service May Fill Those Chairs

My biggest beef with Best Buy in recent days (not counting a rather misleading smartphone promotion) is the quality of its staff. I try not to criticize people who are working at low-paid retail jobs, but it was fairly obvious on a few recent trips to Best Buy that much of the staff was clueless about technology. They weren't rude, just poorly informed about the products they were selling.

Best Buy has been caught in a nasty spiral. Like other brick-and-mortar sellers of consumer electronics, the chain has been reduced to a showroom for Amazon and other online retailers. And as revenue and profits decline, the chain’s “blue shirts” seem less and less qualified. I’m not sure if wages were cut, but a decline in customer service is noticeable. And that hurt sales even more.

It appears the company’s latest CEO, Hubert Joly, sees the problem. Many Best Buy outlets now contain mini-stores focused on products from Apple, Samsung and Microsoft.  Organizing products from specific vendors and presenting them in one place may not seem like a big change, but it makes it much easier to see your options. What's really important, though, are the knowledgable employees there to answer questions.

The Best Buy I visited doesn’t contain a Microsoft mini store, but it will soon, according to an employee. The store had a few white-shirted Microsofties in the computer area ready to answer questions about Windows. I asked those guys some advanced questions about Windows 8.1 and received educated answers.

As for the Apple section, there’s no genius bar, which is one of the best things about Apple's stores. But having someone who's specifically trained to answer Apple-related questions is certainly a plus.The Samsung employees also seemed sharp.

There will, of course, be bumps as Best Buy goes down this new road. One of my colleagues witnessed this incident: A frustrated customer asked both Samsung and Microsoft representatives for help with an Apple-related question. All of the Apple people were apparently busy. The customer then got angry when both reps told him they could only answer questions about their specific products, even though they weren't helping anyone else.

Bottom line: Best Buy is a better place to shop than it used to be, and that’s a good start as it struggles to hold on to its dominance in retail electronics.

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