One of the advantages of living in a big city is all of the access to various services, products, and experiences. Being a resident of a major metropolis gives you access to cultural, medical, culinary, and—in the case of the audiophile hobby—retail experiences that just aren’t available everywhere. Having local “audio salons” who spend their own money to display great product means that you, the consumer, get to experience such products when you visit their establishment.
For many people in North America, the only option to see and/or hear audio gear is at a Best Buy big-box retail location.
There Is a Lot to Potentially Like About Any Given Best Buy Location Including…
- Best Buy locations are generally local to you even in mid-to-smaller markets in North America.
- Best Buy stores have lots of active demos and lots of goodies in their huge locations.
- Best Buy sells all sorts of other non-AV stuff—such as appliances, , computers, and so forth. Audio people need other tech goodies, too, and sometimes it is nice to touch them before you buy them. You can’t get that at Amazon.
- Many Best Buy locations offer e-waste recycling, which allows us to be a little more mindful when upgrading old (possibly toxic) electronics that shouldn’t really go into a traditional trash dump.
- Best Buy in-house Apple stores/vignettes are staffed by Apple employees (not “blue shirts”) who can be notably helpful without a trip to the official Apple Store in the mall or wherever yours is located.
- Although not perfect on this front, Best Buy often has key inventory in-stock and sometimes you need something right now.
- Not all Best Buy locations have a Magnolia store inside, but for the ones that do, you get access to much higher-end brands and more high-performance gear. MartinLogan, McIntosh, Sonos, Bowers & Wilkins, AudioQuest, Definitive Technology, Marantz, Rotel, Klipsch—lots of brands.
So, What’s The Problem with Best Buy?
- Have you ever tried to call a Best Buy store and speak with someone? I did two weeks ago when I was looking to spend a pretty penny on two new ovens. Nobody answered. Not at Best Buy. Not for a number that I got for Pacific Sales (their appliance division also inside the store). When I finally got a person on the phone via a more generic phone number, he was an outsourced operator who had no idea what was in stock in West Los Angeles. He didn’t have a clue about anything, to be fair.
- Recently, I’ve been using chat features on websites to get faster customer service for less pressing issues. I tried this with Best Buy during my oven shopping. Nobody responded. Minutes and minutes and minutes passed and nothing but crickets. I know you don’t always get support that second, but after a good 10 minutes, you should be engaged. I was ignored instead.
- Actually visiting a Best Buy doesn’t get you a much better shopping experience. The often inexperienced staff of “blue shirts” tend to want to talk among themselves versus being motivated to engage with their clients. They go from one department to another without ever becoming expert at any given category.
- The in-store experience at Magnolia should be a lot better, in that these sales people would be on some level of commission—right? Not here in West Los Angeles. I can safely tell you that the last five or ten times that I’ve gone into said Magnolia, literally nobody greeted me. They had a pair of $10,000 MartinLogans (hybrid electrostatic speakers that are very room dependent because of their design) playing in open air, driven by an equally expensive and lust-worthy McIntosh 275 power amp. That’s the audio equivalent of getting a test drive in a brand-new Ferrari, but the only gear you get to drive around in is reverse. Yes, you got a ride in a Ferrari, but you didn’t really experience what the car really is about?
If I Were Best Buy CEO, Here’s What I Would Do Make Their Stores Matter Again
- Make sure everybody on staff earns a living wage as a base—perhaps $20 per hour. Then implement a store-wide bonus system and other incentives designed to inspire a little more “I gave a damn” outlook from the blue shirts. Everyone from cashiers to security guards to salespeople to stock people should benefit from customer service excellence paired with strong daily/monthly/yearly sales. Everybody.
- Get the staff much more trained in specific categories. Test them on the latest technologies in creative, easy-to-do-online ways. Reward the staff when they do well. Help them do well at each step of the process.
- Encourage everyone on staff at any given Best Buy to truly engage with customers. All day. Every day. And for every client that wishes to be engaged (some don’t and that’s fine). When you pay relatively low wages and no meaningful commissions, there is little to no motivation for customer service or sales excellence. Circuit City foolishly went Chapter 7 by firing their commission sales people back in the mid-2000s. Learn from that lesson. Get everybody on staff in on the party. Make it fun. Make it lucrative. This isn’t that hard—other than an attitude change from the top down. Then again, that might be too much to ask for…
- Best Buy stores should have buttons that let consumers give quick feedback about the quality of their experience in the moment. Map where the store is doing well and where they might be sucking. Then improve. Consumers don’t lie about being neglected. Managers would be armed with actual, analytical information to help improve the shopping experience so that people look forward to going to Best Buy as I do at specialty stores like Eatly.
- For every retail location, have enough local people answering the telephone during business hours. Give them the power to check inventory and do simple sales. Not just on an app—which is nice for some but not for all. Sometimes, you need to ask somebody a question before you buy. Provide that person and never make anyone wait (or get fully ignored) as I did.
Because there are no more other national chains like Circuit City and Ultimate Electronics giving Best Buy any serious national competition, the company gets away with the above sins. AV Manufacturers have no choice but to play their game as there is no other game in town. How do you get your AV product distribution in North Dakota or perhaps West Virginia? Without Best Buy, it ain’t easy. I feel their pain and understand their compromises. We live in an imperfect world.
The audiophile hobby has changed a lot in recent decades, in that the expense of having a have a large showroom full of AV and high-performance audio gear is becoming unreasonable in many parts of the country. In New York, always the biggest city for high end audio stores, many of the retailers have been forced to move their retail locations to second (or higher) floors to save on rent. Here in Los Angeles, some of the best retailers are A) located far from the big populations and B) built into warehouse locations, which are less expensive, larger, and pretty suitable for a good demo.
The fact is: you need what you need when you need it. A friend of mine in Ontario (Canada – not California) has no reasonable access to a Radio Shack and only a Best Buy. He recently needed a 3-meter XLR cable and they had none in stock. Remarkable.
- He bought one from Monoprice.com and got the cable the next day. How hard could it be to have just-in-time inventory management that makes it so that you don’t run out of cables needed to connect AV systems in a chain like Best Buy? Clearly, too hard.
- The best thing that you can do to improve your audiophile retail experience near your is to loyally support your local hi-fi shop if you have time. They don’t have the scope and the size of a big-box retailer like Best Buy, but they have people who will care and work with you on a per-client or per-project/system basis. Everything doesn’t have to be transactional. But if it does have to be transactional in terms of the retail process, at least they could have some stuff in stock because the online guys will beat them with two-day shipping every time.
Some Final Thoughts About AV Retail in America (and Canada)…
Once you’ve heard everything that your local Best Buy has to offer, it could be worth traveling a little bit to hear other gear in other nearby cities. When I was a young, budding audiophile living in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, my buddy and I would go to Delaware, North Jersey, Downtown Philly, and all sorts of suburbs to hear and experience different equipment. That was a big part of the fun of the hobby then and now.
For some, this concept requires a flight and/or a hotel stay. Some retailers will actually credit you back those costs for you to come to them and do some business. Ask them first, of course. Also book an appointment with them—especially if you are coming from out of town. They will appreciate knowing at 2 PM you will show up to hear those “fill in brand here” speakers. Also be realistic about what you plan to invest in and what you just would like to audition. If you are just taking a listen to some products, try to be mindful of their time and don’t use too much of it.
I hold out hope that Best Buy could become something more refined and enlightened as an ultra-important retailer in North America. The place has its flaws without question, and has plenty of room to improve. If they did, the future of the hobby would approve along with this retailer of such meaningful importance. I hold on to hope that somebody high up enough in their C-Suite reads this and picks up what I am putting down. Then again, I am not holding my breath.