My mother-in-law recently moved up to Los Angeles from Orange County. Before you offer your most sincere apologies, I really like my mother-in-law. She moved up to help care for my five-year-old son after school and be closer to the family, which has been great. A few weeks ago, my son Vincenzo (no, we couldn't have picked a more Italian name for him) and I were out running errands, which included getting a car wash that was going to take at least 30 minutes. The car wash was about a block away from the only Best Buy anywhere near us, so I suggested to Enzo that we go check out the DVD and Blu-ray sections for any new kids movies.
Randomly and amazingly, we bumped into Grandma Lola inside the store. Go figure. She was shopping for a traditional telephone for her new place. We marched over to the phone department and started looking at the inventory. There were no "blue shirts" to be found; when I went looking for one, I waited 10 minutes to talk with the guy, only to find out that he didn't know anything about phones. Luckily, a professional chef was also shopping for phones that day, and he had seemingly done his research before coming to a brick-and-mortar store like Best Buy. He helped us select a very affordable cordless phone that seemed like it could do the job. The blue shirt went back to text messaging or right swiping on Tinder or whatever.
Lola left with her new cordless phone, and we left with no movies--since we couldn't find one that we didn't already own or that wasn't $25 or more on UHD Blu-ray. During the short walk back to a very clean SUV, I couldn't help but wonder why the chef didn't just buy the phone on Amazon. He had clearly done his research online, and getting around West Los Angeles these days is no cakewalk, even on the weekend. Personally, I still shop in brick-and-mortar stores because I like to see and touch products, and I go out of my way to support local retailers. I never buy clothes online, although my wife sure does. I don't return stuff, either--but I understand that people often use brick-and-mortar stores for easier returns. That's hardly a good enough reason to keep such stores open and stocked, though.
Jeff Bezos is now reportedly the richest man in the world, with a 12-figure net worth. Amazon is getting into all sorts of new businesses, ranging from smart home setup to delivering Whole Foods to your front door (there are rumors that Amazon plans to get into the pharmacy business, too). Amazon's collection of specialty AV gear is getting better and better, featuring more brands that you wouldn't have ever dreamed would be sold online. Perhaps most significantly, in a growing number of cities, Amazon can and will deliver products the same day right to your home. This is a game changer when competing with brick-and-mortar. With most of the stuff I buy online, the free two-day shipping I get with my Prime subscription is good enough. But every once in a while, it's great to get what you need right there on the spot, the same day, without having to go anywhere.
Best Buy certainly isn't dead, but the company really isn't exploiting its greatest advantage: having a national network of brick-and-mortar stores. Amazon is tough to beat in terms of the overall value proposition, but the one thing it can't deliver that a specialty AV store can (and does) is the experience. An AV dealer can show you a product that you weren't searching for--something you didn't know you needed or wanted and now find yourself lusting after. They can show you the benefit of OLED technology over a budget LCD in way that simply doesn't translate in pixels on your computer monitor or smartphone.
Where Best Buy is really missing the boat is in its human resources. Circuit City went right down the drain when the suits concocted the idea to fire the commissioned salespeople. That was stupid. Best Buy should implement a system where blue shirts can become product specialists, thus getting the training needed to elevate beyond being a mere clerk. These higher-level employees should be paid a modest override on their sales, and the entire store should work toward specific goals in sales, customer service, and client satisfaction.
I am not the biggest fan of the Apple Store, but it does offer salespeople who have been trained in their specific category. They can teach you about the product, show you how to use it, and create an experience. Best Buy and Magnolia need this badly to survive. For example, Magnolia sells Kaleidescape products. If I were a commissioned salesman working at Magnolia, I would stand out in front of the store-within-a-store and invite anybody and everybody to come see what a $4,000 Stratos movie server looks like on an LG 4K OLED TV. I'd hand the remote to the wife and show her how easy it is to find and watch her favorite movies in the Kaleidescape Movie Store. I'd show her the beautiful cover-flow art in the interface and how intuitive everything is. Even if those people can't afford the system, you've given them an experience that they've never had before...and maybe planted a seed. They will talk about it at holiday parties and children's soccer games. They'll spread the word ... all because someone took the time to show them something cool. Or maybe you start with the Kaleidescape/LG demo but ultimately sell them a more modest 4K TV and a Roku box--you've still earned the sale, and there is nothing Amazon or other online retailers can do to compete with that level of experience and insight.
Non-experiential selling that's based mostly on price is a race to the bottom of the market. Delivering insight, knowledge, passion and experience never goes out of style. While there are fewer and fewer brick-and-mortar AV stores left, the ones that thrive--like Definitive Audio in Seattle, ABT in Chicago, or Starpower in Dallas--sell the experience. People want the experience and are willing to support the retailers that deliver it. Best Buy has such a wonderful opportunity to do this, given its wide-reaching national chain of big-box stores. I just wonder if they'll ever get the memo that future success isn't based on hawking commodity products as much as it is on selling technology with a level of professionalism and knowledge that is hard to find online. Differentiated. Curated. Sell the experience, not the box.
We'd love to know where you buy most of your AV gear. Are you addicted to Amazon? Have you bought high-end AV components online from a major retailer or a specialty retailer? If you still support your local AV dealer, tell us exactly what they do that's special and how they have earned your business. Respond in the Comments section below.
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